Another 10 buses of "Birthrighters" passed through our programs this week. Once again this year, I have to admit that my skepticism about this idea may have been mistaken.
Years ago, when Yossi Beilin first floated the suggestion that all Jewish youth in the world should receive a subsidized trip to Israel, I was sure that it was a foolish waste of the resources of the Jewish people. It seemed to be based on the old assumption that somehow a trip to Israel was ipso facto a powerful, automatic Jewish educational experience - that a few weeks in Israel would miraculously turn an alienated, ignorant kid into a committed, identified Jew. After all, we all know that Israel, as a living, modern state, is rife with social problems, filled with Jews whose Jewish identity is not the model we would choose for our students, rich in opportunities for all sorts of unsavory behaviors, not to mention the potential turn-offs offered by various experiences of middle-eastern manners and social mores. For kids who have grown up after the fading of romantic Zionism, ignorant of the language and the texts that would give the stones of Israel meaning, what is the power of an Israel experience? If the Temple doesnt mean anything to you, why should you be moved by a visit to the Western Wall? If youve never heard of Elijah, whats so exciting about Mount Carmel? And if youve never heard of the Irgun, then why would you want to visit Acco prison?
It seemed to me that we were looking for a quick fix for a deep problem, and that the same amount of resources would be much better spent on improving the quality of Jewish education in the Diaspora. Moreover, the concept perpetuates the perception that Jewish life in the Diaspora is somehow inferior to that in Israel, that the North American Jewish experience is empty and Israel is full, and so the flow of energy is one-way. Israel is the center, North America is the periphery. I didnt (and dont) accept that analysis.
Last year, when the Birthright program really began to happen, I was among the skeptics who wondered how a quick, free trip (with minimal investment in educational planning, preparation, and follow-up), focused mainly on those college students who came from the least committed backgrounds, those who passed up the opportunity to participate in any high-school Israel experience, was going to be much more than one big party.
Then they showed up. And in teaching and observing busload after busload, I was surprised again and again by the level of interest, the thoughtful questions, the eagerness to cut through the propaganda and to understand the complexities, the enthusiastic "thank yous," and the openness to new perspectives and to new knowledge. This years crop, so far, has been the same. Apparently, there really is a large population of Jewish college students who, even though they werent ready for (or maybe couldnt afford) an Israel experience in high school, really do feel a connection to, a curiosity about, and an interest in Israel. Im sure there are all kinds of kids in these groups, and Im sure they are drinking a lot of beer. But the dominant tone, when they get to our educational programs here, is one of serious, interested, thoughtful participation. What the long-term impact will be - only research will be able to determine; but from my on-the-ground observations, the results are very encouraging.
Now, why is this? Is there, after all, something moving, some special resonance that is stimulated by the experience of a "total Jewish environment?" Is it that "the readiness is all," and Jewish students are at a life stage of identity exploration, in which this experience happens to fit? Is it spending 11 days traveling with Jewish fellow students, supervised by Jewish educators? Is it that many of these kids skipped high school Israel experiences for practical reasons and not for lack of knowledge or commitment? Is it all of the above? Hard to say. Perhaps we will understand the dynamics better when the program moves on to fund a younger, high-school age cohort, and we will be able to compare results.