Towards Jerusalem with an Easterly View: Taglit-Birthright’s Shifting Focus

excerpted from an article by Gidi Mark

There is no doubt that some of the fastest growing Jewish communities around the world are those in East Asia. In the ten years since its inception, Taglit-Birthright Israel has started a revolution in the way young Jews connect to their Jewish identities, to Israel, and to the communities from which they come and it is now looking to develop connections with the Jewish communities of the Far East.

Jewish history in East Asia has followed a similar pattern to Jewish history elsewhere around the world: Jews arrived there in order to escape persecution or in order to develop business opportunities. There is evidence of a Jewish community in Kaifeng from as early as 1,000 years ago, perhaps started by Jewish merchants passing through during their travels. The Jewish community of Shanghai developed in the mid-19th century and grew to roughly 30,000 at its height. Perhaps most famously, Chinese diplomat Dr. Feng Shan Ho saved thousands of Jews during World War II by granting them visas that enabled their escape to China and out of the hands of the Nazi regime.

It is a mark of Western-oriented culture that China and its surrounding neighbors were long referred to as the ‘Far-East.’ Even today, with the increasingly unavoidable reality that the nations of the region have a major impact on global events, there is still a prevalent attitude towards East Asia that views it as a distant entity, both geographically and culturally. This is evident in the under-representation of the region in many elements of global politics as well as among international corporations and non-profits.

“There, is a sleeping giant. Let him sleep! If he awakes, he will shake the world.” – Napoleon Bonaparte

There has been much debate about what Napoleon meant when he uttered this phrase about of the region of Greater China. He may as well have said it about many of the nations of the region. Yet he would likely have done better to engage the region rather than to ‘let it sleep.’ Ultimately, Napoleon met his demise after barely 15 years as a world leader, while East Asia is home to civilizations more than 4,000 years old that in many ways have only just begun to realize their potential.

Even more than Napoleon in the early 19th century, those who refrain from engaging East Asia in today’s 21st century society will find themselves increasingly sidelined. The region has become a major influence in all realms, from technology to finance and from literature to athletics – persistent Western attitudes notwithstanding. I was recently surprised myself, but also quite pleased, to learn that my own son was studying Mandarin. It is a language that, like engagement with the people of East Asia, was once considered exotic but is now essential for anyone operating on a global level.

Taglit-Birthright too has shifted focus to the East and is looking for regional partners to join this project. No global approach in planning 21st century policy can afford to overlook the emerging importance of East Asia. More than a quarter million young Jews representing over 54 countries around the world can count themselves as Taglit-Birthright Israel alumni. With this remarkable growth, the time is overdue to welcome the Jewish communities of Asia into what has become the most important educational project and the most rapidly growing project in modern Jewish history.

… Like the nations of East Asia, the Jews of the region have a unique perspective of the world, and I am confident that Taglit-Birthright Israel would offer them the opportunity to enrich their own communities and society as a result of the free trip. There can be only great benefit to both parties in the building of yet another bridge between East Asian and Jewish cultures – ancient societies that have become prominent players in the modern world. I look forward to the opportunity to expand our international project to this important part of the globe, and to strengthening the relationship between the Jewish people and our East Asian brothers and sisters.

Gidi Mark is the International CEO of Taglit-Birthright Israel. Before 2008 he served as the project’s International Director of Marketing and Community Relations. Mr. Mark joined the project at its inception after leaving Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he served as a diplomat in New York, Germany and Turkey.

Copyright Asian Jewish Life. Reprinted with permission.