Ten years ago, a survey asked American Jewish college students to name the top 20 countries they would like to visit. Israel didn’t make the list.
Today, nearly 225,000 Jews between the ages of 18 and 26, mostly from the U.S., have visited Israel, courtesy of Birthright Israel, a program whose free 10-day trips are designed to deepen Jewish identity.
A new study, released this week, is the first long-term report on the program’s impact. It focuses on the behavior of participants from the years 2001 to 2004 and makes the case that even a brief, intense Jewish educational group experience can “change the trajectory of Jewish engagement” among a whole generation of young Jews, according to Len Saxe, a social psychologist at Brandeis University who has been studying the effects of the Birthright experience since the program began.
In other words, it is not inevitable that young American Jews will become increasingly distanced from Israel and from a sense of Jewish peoplehood, or that assimilation rates will continue to grow, as has been widely predicted.
Indeed, the most dramatic finding of the new study asserts that Birthright participants are far more likely than non-participants to marry Jews and to want to raise Jewish families.
The report by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, based on interviews with 1,223 individuals, found that 72 percent of the married participants had a Jewish spouse, compared to 46 percent of married non-participants. And 51 percent of single participants said they believe it is “very important” to marry a Jew, while 35 percent of non-participants agreed.
(The non-participants in the study were people who applied for the free Birthright trip but did not go, often because the trips were oversubscribed. Also, since almost all Orthodox Jews marry Jews, the research on the effect of Birthright on marital choices was based only on respondents raised in non-Orthodox homes.)
Seventy-three percent of the participants surveyed said the Birthright trip was a “life-changing experience”; participants were 23 percent more likely to say they felt “very much” connected to Israel, and 16 percent more likely to feel “very much” connected to world Jewry.
However, the Birthright trip appeared to have little influence on the participants’ “religious observance, communal involvement, and on their feelings of connection to Jewish customs and traditions and to their local Jewish community,” which were about the same as non-participants’, according to the study.
The report seemed to underscore that Birthright has managed to make significant inroads in changing norms among young American Jews when it comes to Israel, suggesting that a tipping point is on the horizon. If Birthright officials succeed in their goal of bringing more than half of all eligible young Jews to Israel in the next five to seven years, such a trip could well become the norm for a whole generation and beyond, as post-high school year-in-Israel yeshiva programs have become in the Orthodox community.
Yet the study’s findings that Birthright has little impact on religious observance and communal involvement remind us that the program is not a silver bullet for all of American Jewry’s problems, and presents a challenge to the Jewish community to find other creative ways to engage young people in those and other areas.
‘Race Between Intermarriage And Birthright’
The report was introduced at a crowded press conference Monday at Brandeis House here. From the presentations and responses — and from the data itself — one could see the high-stakes communal debate being played out over how best to preserve Jewish life in an open society, if that is even possible.
Saxe emphasized that Judaism and Jewish life “can be made relevant” and that engagement with Israel is “a powerful unifying force.”
Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist who specializes in American Jewish life and who praised the study’s methodology, described the current situation as “a race between intermarriage and Birthright.”
He said that in dealing with intermarriage, the community has been “plagued” by viewing the divide as between “doves,” who accept the inevitability of rising rates of intermarriage and focus on post-marriage conversion, and “hawks,” who seek to prevent intermarriage and who bemoan its impact.
Welcoming the prospect that that the new study’s findings will “return intermarriage to the conversation” at a time when it seemed the doves had won out, Cohen said he believes intermarriage poses an urgent threat to Jewish continuity. But he also believes outreach efforts to the intermarried should continue, along with various projects aimed at bringing Jews together.
The new study found that 52 percent of intermarried Birthright participants said that raising their children as Jews is “very important,” compared to 27 percent of intermarried non-participants.
Several speakers praised the impact Birthright has had in its first decade and bemoaned the fact that more than 20,000 applicants for trips this year were unable to go due to lack of funding. Ten thousand slots were filled at a cost of about $3,000 per trip.
Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston, said that “frankly, the organized Jewish community has been way behind on this.” He noted that the Boston federation has benefited from being associated with Birthright, which it helps support.
But in response to a question posed by The Jewish Week, officials noted that the North American federation system allocates about 1 percent of funding to Birthright.
Some said it was a “no-brainer” to increase giving to a program that has proven successful in heightening Jewish identity.
Birthright was designed to raise $100 million a year from a small group of major donors, the Israeli government, and the federations, with each of the three contributing one-third of the budget. But the federations have never come close to that amount, sources agree.
Some federations see the project as competition, it was explained, especially at a time when funding is down and demands for local services are up.
Alisa Kurshan, a vice president of UJA-Federation of New York, said the local charity has always met its Birthright allocations and is an enthusiastic supporter of the program.
Bob Aronson, the president of Birthright Israel, noted that his organization is in the process of greatly expanding its donor base from 2,600 contributors to a planned 50,000, on a national scale, including Birthright alumni. He said the number of donors had almost doubled to 5,000 this year.
Three of the key major donors who helped create Birthright were at the press conference. Charles Bronfman and Lynn Schusterman expressed support for the new study, but Michael Steinhardt, the enfant terrible of Jewish philanthropy, sounded a sour note by criticizing the community for what he categorized as complacent behavior in the face of urgent problems.
“The Jewish world engages in a great deal of dialogue,” he said, “and I find that wearying.” He said Jewish organizations engage in polite dialogue rather than making controversial, risky and difficult “out-of-the-box” choices that could shake up and improve Jewish engagement, reminding the group that Birthright was “overwhelmingly disliked” by the establishment when it began.
He even suggested that reports like the study by the Cohen Center, which hosts the Steinhardt Social Research Center at Brandeis, amount to “gornisht,” or nothing.
(A number of Jewish professionals privately argue that a Steinhardt-funded study of a Steinhardt-funded project is highly suspect. But Saxe maintained that he and his staff had complete autonomy, and that the report underwent peer review, including the positive comments from Cohen, who has repeatedly clashed with Saxe on other research findings.)
Saxe told The Jewish Week that this study is part of a long-term effort to keep in touch with Birthright alumni over many years, while adding new cohorts, to determine the effect of the Israel trip.
He said a key factor in the positive results, besides the trip itself, was young Jews meeting and bonding with peers and with Israeli soldiers (not on duty), who take part in the program.
The report found that Birthright participants were 50 percent more likely than non-participants to feel “very confident” of their ability to explain the current situation in Israel, and 35 percent more likely to use Israeli news sources for information about the 2009 conflict in Gaza.