Imagine what would happen if funders created a variety of high-quality Israel trips that were free or heavily-subsidized for interfaith couples and families

by Rabbi Hayim Herring

Question to funders and philanthropists: What about making a heavily subsidized trip to Israel available for interfaith couples and families? Here are the arguments for it:

  • “Israel-alienated” Jews constitute about 20% of the young Jewish population, to use Professor Steven Cohen’s term in a recent analysis he prepared for The Jewish Daily Forward. Not just hawkish Israeli government policies, but intermarriage also has emerged as an “indicator of alienation” from Israel.
  • Any rabbi or other educator who has taught an Introduction to Judaism class with non-Jewish learners knows that it’s impossible to give them the experience of pride, love and passion for Israel simply by talking about the Jewish state. They can experience a Shabbat or holiday meal locally, they can experience being a part of a Jewish family locally, but they can’t feel the complexity and depth of emotions about Israel from a classroom in the Diaspora.
  • We know from Taglit-Birthright Israel that young people’s pride and feelings of attachment to the Jewish state increase from this ten-day trip.

So, imagine what would happen if funders, inspired by the success of Taglit-Birthright Israel, created a variety of high-quality trips that were free or heavily-subsidized for interfaith couples and families. No – it wouldn’t be their birthright. But as an American Jewish community, it could be our WorthRight – the right way to have younger, interfaith couples and families experience Israel would be worth the cost because of the potential to increase their feelings of attachment to Israel.

And here’s some final evidence from the Book of Ruth, which we’ll be reading on Shavuot. Many remember the non-Jewish Ruth’s loving refusal to abandon her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, when Naomi urges her to part ways so that Naomi can return to Israel (Ruth 1:16). Ruth adamantly refuses, saying: “Where you go, I shall go; where you take up lodging, so shall I. Your people will be my people, and your God my God.”

Naomi’s attachment to the Jewish people starts personally – she marries a Jewish man. Being part of Jewish family connects her to the Israelites, and through the portal of family, she comes to accept the Jewish God. When she says to Naomi, “Where you die, I will be buried” (Ruth 1:17), she is not yet expressing her attachment to the land of Israel. That’s just another way of her saying to Naomi that she will remain with her mother-in-law “until death do us part.” It’s the experience of actually living and working in the land that makes Israel central to her identity. And in fact, history records that she bonds with Israel so deeply, that her lineage produces King David, who generations later rules the land of Israel. How’s that for an unfolding longitudinal outcome of someone with no initial attachment to the land of Israel?

Currently, there are no national systematic efforts to try to get interfaith families on a massive scale over to Israel. WorthRight Israel could be the answer to mitigating the trend of “Israel alienation” – we just need some funders and federations to work together on it.

Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., is a noted thought leader and author on topics related to synagogue life and Jewish community, and C.E.O. of HayimHerring.com, a consulting firm that “prepares today’s leaders for tomorrow’s organizations.”