by Theodoree Sasson, David Mittelberg and Leonard Saxe:

During the past year, more than 40,000 Diaspora young adults spent 10 days or more in Israel on Taglit-birthright israel educational trips. Perhaps more than any other single effort, Taglit is changing how Diaspora Jews relate to Israel and their Jewish identities. But even more unexpected, the program’s impact on Israelis who participate seems to be nearly as profound.

Taglit was created to reverse assimilatory trends in Diaspora communities, particularly North America, and to provide an experience that would connect Jewish young adults with their identity, Israel and the Jewish people. An increasingly central feature of the program is a mifgash (encounter) between the Diaspora participants and Israeli peers. On any given tour group, six to eight Israeli participants – mostly soldiers but also students – join for at least five days of the 10-day experience.

Recently, we completed a study of a sample of one cohort of the 30,000 Israelis who have participated in Taglit groups. We learned that, although originally intended to provide Diaspora young adults with the chance to develop a personal connection with Israelis their own age, the mifgash has emerged as a valuable experience for the Israelis as well.

During their experience traveling through Israel, Israelis and Diaspora visitors exchange information about their lives; discuss politics, history, music and their identities; and participate together in Shabbat Jewish rituals. As hosts, the Israelis provide insider information – about historical sites, best places to eat and favorite beaches and clubs. More significantly, they explain what it means to them personally to live in Israel and serve in the IDF.

As every educator knows, teaching others is often the best way to learn for oneself. The Diaspora visitors are deeply curious about the Israelis’ experiences as soldiers and their views on military service. Much discussion is devoted to these topics, and the soldiers’ special role is dramatized as they don military uniform for visits to Yad Vashem and Mount Herzl.

Over the course of these exchanges, the soldiers renew their own sense of personal commitment to service – to Israel and the IDF – even as they try to communicate these ideas to their Diaspora Jewish guests. As one male soldier explained to an interviewer, “The mifgash showed me the big picture, what I really contribute, and that is something I don’t see in my daily life. They helped me regain the feeling that my service, my very being in the army is crucial. I’m proud of my service much more than I was before.”

Sensing the genuine admiration of Diaspora visitors, the Israeli participants take pride in their military service. They also see beyond the differences between their own lives and those of their Diaspora counterparts. In particular, they discover that most North American Jews are neither Orthodox nor assimilated, but rather represent a variety of models of engagement with Jewish practice and tradition.

Many Israelis explained that getting to know Diaspora Jews made them feel more “Jewish,” not just Israeli. It enabled them to feel connected to a worldwide Jewish people. As one female soldier related to an interviewer, “At the Kotel I had an amazing experience… Suddenly, one of the [American] girls started praying Shma Yisrael and stood right next to me. I started praying with her and we both had tears in our eyes… It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.”

In telephone interviews with hundreds of Israeli participants several months following their Taglit experiences, the program’s impact was still evident. Overwhelming majorities agreed that the program made them feel proud of their military service, proud to be Jewish and proud to be Israeli. A large majority of both secular and religious respondents also agreed that the program made them think about their Jewish identities and their connection to the Jewish people worldwide.

Given the short duration of the program and its emphasis on the education of Diaspora young adults, its impact on Israelis seems remarkable. Israeli and Jewish leaders seeking strategies to cultivate Jewish identity in Israel and the Diaspora will be heartened to learn that the goal is not beyond our reach. Taglit’s mifgash model is one way of fostering Jewish identity and peoplehood among young Jews worldwide.

The full report, “Encountering the Other – Finding Oneself: A Study of the Taglit-Birthright Israel Mifgash” can be found in both English and Hebrew on the Web site of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.

Theodore Sasson is on the faculty at Middlebury College and Brandeis University, David Mittelberg at Oranim Academic College of Education and Leonard Saxe at Brandeis University.

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