Birthright Israel is a profound and transformational experience

By Gil Troy, Haaretz, 5-18-11

(In response to “Birthright Israel tours are insulting young Jews’ intelligence,” April 29 )

Anshel Pfeffer is a thoughtful, passionate journalist. But in his recent caricature of Taglit-Birthright Israel he succumbed to writing-by-punchline, painting a superficial portrait of an experience that is much richer than he suggested.

Taglit-Birthright Israel offers young, frequently alienated, Jews a jumpstart in their Jewish journeys. To assume that its tours are “one-size-fits-all,” “saccharine,” “sanitized,” or “infantile,” as the writer charged, is to miss the profound educational process, both formal and informal, underlying the experience.

Taglit-Birthright Israel weaves together sites, experiences, and discussions that provide a concise “bird’s-eye” overview of Jewish history, Israel as a modern Jewish and pluralistic state; Israel as a rich laboratory for Jewish arts and culture; and glimpses of the role environmentalism plays in contemporary Israel.

The Taglit-Birthright Israel Jewish experience is far more vibrant, exuberant and welcoming than the Judaism many experienced before, and the interactions that participants have with tour educators or medics, bus drivers, or each other create soul-stretching, mind-blowing, identity-transforming conversations.

Finally, participants’ encounters with Israeli soldiers are far more than the “fun treat” for overworked soldiers that Mr.Pfeffer alleges. I have witnessed numerous intense, often emotional, encounters, where soldiers shared some of their traumas and participants realized how similar yet different the two groups are.

Since Taglit-Birthright Israel began 11 years ago, demographers have discovered lower intermarriage rates and higher rates of both Jewish and Israel engagement among participants. Anecdotally, the overwhelming majority of more than 250,000 Birthright alumni testify enthusiastically to undergoing substantive, and usually transformational experiences. I began as a Taglit-Birthright Israel skeptic who wrote a critical article about the program when it was first launched. I now chair Birthright Israel’s International Education Committee.

Prof. Gil Troy

Professor of History at McGill University

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