Exploring the hows and whys of Birthright Israel

Leading Jewish educators examine a popular, effective Israel-encounter program

A Birthright group ascending Masada.

Rabbi Irving Greenberg (left), a conference keynote speaker, with Prof. Leonard Saxe, convener of the meeting.

Taglit-Birthright Israel, the Israel education program founded by philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, is by any measure wildly successful.

It has sent 300,000-plus Jewish young people from North America, Europe and Russia to Israel, dwarfing the numbers sent by all previous programs.  In an era of concern about widespread assimilation, research by Brandeis’ Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies has shown Birthright to be effective at strengthening participants’ identities as Jews and their connections to Israel. Surprisingly, the program also has created in participating Israelis a strong sense of Jewish peoplehood distinct from their Israeli nationality.

But how and why has this happened?  What of the Birthright results is applicable elsewhere in Jewish education, in secular education and in the understanding of diaspora-homeland relations?

These questions were the subjects of a recent symposium at Brandeis convened by Cohen Center Director Leonard Saxe, who has been studying Birthright’s development and impacts since the program’s inception a dozen years ago. The conference drew nearly 100 scholars, researchers and policymakers from North America, Europe and Israel, many of whom said they believe Birthright is evolving an educational approach with broad applicability.

“Birthright has cognitive content, intellectual content. It is emotional, it excites participants, and it involves actual behavior, walking history, walking contemporary developments,” Saxe said. “This can be a model for education broadly. In this modern, pluralistic world of immigrants, the role that diaspora-homeland education plays has got significance not only for Jews but for many other groups.”

Taglit-Birthright Israel provides a gift of a 10-day educational trip to Israel to 18- to 26-year-old Jews, many of whom have scant Jewish education or identification. It has become so popular that, this summer, it will be able to accommodate only about 18,000 of the 44,000 youth who applied. About 50 Brandeis students participate annually.

Birthright Israel’s stated mission is to “strengthen participants’ Jewish identity; to build understanding, friendship and a lasting bond with the land and people of Israel; and to reinforce the solidarity of the Jewish people worldwide.”

Those were, of course, goals of programs that preceded Birthright, and thus the interest of researchers and education-policy wonks in why this program works so much better than its predecessors.

A key difference with Birthright, according to Stanford University’s Lee Shulman, president emeritus of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, is that it discards distinctions between formal and informal education and puts aside the idea that the quantity of an experience has a direct bearing on its quality.

Shulman, one of two keynote speakers at the conference, also urged scholars to “get more inventive in theorizing” about what’s happening in the “mifgash” element of Birthright – the largely unstructured five-day encounter between Israelis and non-Israeli participants that has grown into a central part of the program.

Rabbi Irving Greenberg, the other keynote speaker, said one reason Birthright succeeds is that “like Star Wars, it picks up classic themes that resonate. What we have here is a reinvention of a classic story” of return.

“The core of the religion is Exodus and Passover,” Greenberg said in an interview. “There is a God. Evil will be overthrown. People will get to be free in their own country.” What occurs with many Birthright participants, he said, is “suddenly, they feel this is not just history. It happened, and is happening, to me. That’s the secret.”

Birthright Israel arose as the Jewish community was searching for ways to overcome twin failures in Jewish education – of synagogue-based Jewish education in general, and of integrating Israel into the Jewish educational framework – conference participants said.

In his keynote, Greenberg likened traditional approaches to airplanes taxiing on a runway without ever flying, compared to Birthright’s offer of a “takeoff experience.”  Birthright’s success, he said, “is a call to shift as many Jewish experiences as possible to takeoff frameworks, because they give a greater yield.

Birthright, Greenberg said, “proves that many Jews whom we consider indifferent or uninterested are capable of reaching takeoff levels of intensity,” and therefore the community “has to have the courage, if it can’t raise money for all its activities, to reduce the routine and maintenance experiences and primarily invest in these kinds of experiences.”

Zohar Raviv M.A. ‘00, education director of Birthright in Israel, acknowledges that the program has a lot of pluses from a young adult’s perspective, offering social and cultural opportunities, a free trip, and a peer experience. But these factors do not add up to a meaningful, effective educational experience, he says; that is something Birthright achieves by challenging both the dichotomy between formal and informal education and “the idea that more is more.”

Earlier Israel-experience programs tried “to stun young people into identifying with Israel and their Jewish heritage by taking them to 10 or 12 sites a day and making them so tired they don’t drink alcohol,” Raviv said. Birthright rejected that approach, he said,  because “less is more” --participants respond better and learn more through in-depth exploration of three or four sites a day that are closely related to a few overarching themes and questions.

“We’re not merely seeking a meaningful emotional process,” Raviv said. “There is a fine line between evoking emotion and manipulation.”

Saxe, who in addition to directing the Cohen Center, is the  Klutznick Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Brandeis, and his colleague Ted Sasson, a Middlebury College professor who is also senior research scientist at the center and at the Steinhardt Social Research Institute, have conducted extensive research on Birthright.

“We treat it like a true experiment in the medical world, where some of the people get the treatment and some don’t, so we’ve been able to compare those who get to go on the trip with those who don’t,” Saxe said. “By every measure, those who go are significantly different from people who have the same backgrounds who didn’t go.”

An interesting outcome of the conference was that a number of participants called for dissemination of the results of Taglit-Birthright Israel to audiences outside the community of scholars and policy makers concerned with Jewish identity.  According to Saxe, there are multiple lessons for the broader scholarly and educational practitioner communities.

President Fred Lawrence, who spoke briefly to conference participants, identified himself as “a Birthright parent,” and said he was “proud for Brandeis to be at the crossroads of those concerned with ‘How do we grow this? How do we take it to the next level?’”

Shula Reinharz, a Brandeis sociology professor who chaired a panel on “Israel Experience Programs: Past, Present and Future,” told researchers and policy makers at the conference that “what you’re doing is what the kids are doing, trying to figure out what Taglit is. You don’t know, and they don’t know, but you’re both sure it’s moving in the right direction.”

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