Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld, Chairman of the Board of Fellows of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, recently sat with Prof. Leonard Saxe of Brandeis University to discuss Present and Possible Future Impacts of Birthright Israel. The following is excerpted, with permission, from the interview which will appear in their Februray 15, 2009 publication. It also appears on the website of The Institute for Global Jewish Affairs.
“The program’s most surprising element is the relatively great uniformity of its impact and how differently participants describe their relationship with Jewish life and Israel. We have interviewed tens of thousands of them and almost as many applicants who didn’t have a chance to go on the program. It is extraordinary how consistently participants describe the program as an ‘amazing experience.’ This is true for those who are intellectually inclined as well as for those who are not, for those who were already before the trip connected to their Jewish identity in various degrees and those who were not. There are differences in the magnitude of their response depending on their starting point, but the pattern of change is identical.
“What they learn is mostly about people, but they also report that ‘they learned a great deal about Israel’s landscape and natural environment, Israeli culture, modern Israeli and Jewish history.’ They learn less about Jewish customs and practices, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Israeli social problems, but in part that is because the program eschews a religious focus, as well as a political orientation.”