Academics examine Vitamin B10 – Birthright’s secret


By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-29-12

Last week, more than 100 academics gathered at Brandeis University to analyze Taglit-Birthright Israel.

Alexandra Wolkoff (left), Hannah Turner (center)

Photo: Ofer Shimoni

Last week, more than 100 academics gathered at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies to analyze an unlikely research subject – Taglit-Birthright Israel.

The formal research confirmed what simple observation of this informal process reveals: This “Mega-Experiment in Jewish Education,” as Professor Len Saxe who convened the conference calls Birthright, has succeeded with more than 300,000 young Jews, thanks to the magic of Israel, an Israel they see through their eyes, not through the distorting lens of conflict-obsessed reporters or angry activists.

But Birthright’s success also stems from its humanistic, person-centered educational philosophy. This approach emphasizes “no strings attached” – meaning no ideological or practical demands in return for what Charles Bronfman calls a gift from one generation to the next. It respects all participants, inviting them to launch their own unique Jewish journeys without the traditional guilt trips, while acknowledging the centrality of Israel and of Jewish peoplehood in building modern Jewish identity.

Birthright’s origins were not just countercultural but counterintuitive. This is a program conceived in failure which easily could have failed. It emerged from the panic generated in the 1990s when the National Jewish Population Survey confirmed that intermarriage was becoming mainstreamed in America. The American Jewish future looked grim.

Birthright was the programmatic equivalent of a cardiac defibrillator, trying to give the ailing Jewish community an emergency healing shock as things turned critical. But thanks to its affirmative, open-ended approach, Birthright has gone from being palliative to preventative. Vitamin B10 – 10 days of a collective Birthright experience trip in Israel – is becoming a Jewish rite of passage, an elegant way to start or restart a Jewish journey, not a desperate, defensive measure against assimilation.

Now it looks easy, but it wasn’t. In the 1990s, philosophers like Francis Fukuyama were declaring “the end of history,” as Miles Trentell, the evil advertising executive on the late 1980s, early 1990s TV hit, Thirty-something scoffed that, to modern Americans, history is last week’s People magazine cover.

In 1995, the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam published his article (which became a book), “Bowling Alone,” arguing that in a post-collective age, selfish Americans bowled, but not together in leagues as their parents did; this generation bowled alone.

In 1996, the historian David Hollinger’s Postethnic America concluded that Americans were abandoning their tribal connections.

Yet to ahistorical, hyperindividualistic, postethnic Americans – and moderns, because Jews in dozens of countries participate – Birthright offered a sense of the past through Israel’s layers of history, a sense of the group through the peer experience on the bus, and a sense of rootedness through the ethnic, tribal, national Jewish connection.

And participants loved it.

Similarly, Birthright, which the historian Jonathan Sarna notes reflected a new faith in “transformative” educational experiences rather than more normative, less ecstatic “formative” ones, revolutionized assumptions in the Jewish world.

Birthright proved that Judaism could be dynamic and welcoming. Not only has Birthright shown that bold ideas can be game-changers, but it introduced a new, more fluid, more inspiring, less formalistic, less alienating type of Judaism for young Jews to embrace, even without bar mitzvah goodies as bribes.

Birthright proved that Israel could be inspiring and even comforting, a far cry from the embattled, controversial country they see on TV, because not everything is political. And Birthright proved that Zionism, despite its many internal and external enemies, could be cool and relevant.

Birthright reintroduces Judaism to participants as what Rabbi Yitz Greenberg calls “an organizing filter,” a way of understanding the world and themselves. This intense “takeoff” experience “reconnects” young Jews with Jewish tradition, even while acting as what Jeffrey Solomon of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies called a “disruptive technology,” meaning an innovative, unconventional, cutting-edge program.

Birthright Israel’s core educational principles, drafted by one of the greats of modern Jewish education, Professor Barry Chazan, offer a quilted theory – meaning an integrated platform – combining an experiential approach, a culture of values, a culture of ideas, person-centered education, social interactionism and the concept of fun – in a respectful, constructive context which measures outcomes.

It has created a process which respects every participant’s intelligence, independence and integrity – only asking them to participate constructively, then draw their own conclusions.

The central challenge facing modern American Jews is not anti-Semitism, nor is it defending Israel. It is answering such basic questions as “who am I,” “what are my values,” “how do I build a meaningful life” and “where does Judaism fit in”? As chairman of Birthright Israel’s International Education Committee, I confess that the bigger Birthright gets the harder we have to work to help participants answer those questions effectively by staying small, intimate and person-centered.

We never want to become the “educational McDonald’s” of the Jewish people, mass producing one-size-fits-all fast food-type experiences. Instead, we seek to cultivate a modern, open-air, experiential Beit Midrash (House of Study), wherein each individual may follow the same itinerary, but, in a true I-thou educational interaction, grows in a particular way that works for him or her.

Jeffrey Solomon asked: will Taglit be like Apple or HP – continuing to innovate or so addicted to past success we stagnate.

From the start, Birthright has invested in research, guaranteeing constant and accurate feedback, while yielding results – ably analyzed by Len Saxe and his Brandeis team – proving that the experience encourages Jews to marry each other, raises Israel awareness, deepens Jewish connectedness, and is lots of fun.

Conferences like this one, assembling educators, rabbis, historians, demographers, anthropologists, sociologists, even an economist, will keep Birthright sharp, keep it innovating, even as its essential fuel remains the delightfully combustible combination of Jewish tradition, an open-ended approach, passionate educators, and a generation seeking meaning in life and a more dynamic Judaism than the one their parents introduced to them.

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, he is the chairman of the Taglit-Birthright Israel International Education Committee.

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1 Comment

  1. I am a Taglit fan. As an educator and tour guide I have witnessed countless groups of Taglit fulfilling many of the things that my colleague Prof. Troy has pointed out. My own nieces, who otherwise had no exposure to Yiddishkeit, found the experience life-changing and one has since staffed several trips, came on a Masa program and is now again spending extensive time here. Anyone who has been even observed form the outside cannot help but “kvell” at the accomplishments of b.i. With whatever issues Taglit needs to still address, no one can detract from this amazing enterprise as a whole, especially where otherwise alienated or unaffiliated Jews are concerned. This program should continue, God willing, for many years to come.

    But my problem is that with all the money going to birthright and to Masa, the longer-term high school programs (4 weeks to 4 months) are being left out in the cold. With the rising costs of such programs (even when run as efficiently as possible), parents take a look a year or two down the road and say, “Hey, you can go for free soon, why spend thousands of dollars now?!” And these comments are coming from committed, youth movement-oriented parents; the kind of people that came on their own high school program a half-generation ago. I’m not talking about a hypothetical possibility, these are real quotations. The federations, donors and government jumped on the b.i. and Masa bandwagons, abandoning the high school-age programs (whether summer programs of 4-6 weeks or semester-long programs) to struggle on their own. By investing in what Dr. Troy’s called the proverbial “cardiac defibrillators” they have forgotten about keeping healthy patients healthy! Is someone who lives a healthy life less valuable than one who was remarkably cured from a life-threatening disease? Can one really compare a 10-day trip in college to an intensive seminar of 4-6 weeks or a semester in Israel on one of the Lapid-affiliated programs at the formative ages of 15-17? I believe, to return to the medical metaphor, that the medical community has come around to understanding that “preventive medicine” is of equal if not greater importance than interventions at times of pathology. Why have not our major benefactors, Jewish Agency and Israeli Government come to the same realization?

    I’m not advocating for giving high school programs away for free; rather, I believe that major funding should be found for promoting such programs (with even a fraction of the Taglit PR budget) and then offering significant subsidies to a high school student who wants to devote a substantial chunk of time to Israel. How about a “universal voucher” (not my coinage) for every Jewish youth at 16 years old, in which every Jewish teen will be given a choice:
    “You can either wait and use this $4000 (or whatever the basic cost per person is) in a couple of years’ time and go to Israel for 10 days at no additional cost, OR you can use it towards a program in which you will explore Israel for a minimum of 4 weeks, hiking through the Negev for several days, getting to know Jerusalem as a ‘second home,’ learning about different forms of settlement in the Galilee, getting to know Israelis for a period of time (not on a one-shot basis), volunteering in various contexts, spending several days in Tel Aviv learning about the history and sociology of the ‘first Hebrew city,’ learning about the historical (if not religious) significance of the Kotel and going back to it over time to understand what it’s all about, using whatever Hebrew you have learned to order your felafel, having the time to reflect upon and discuss your experiences over the course of several weeks (or months) with peers that you have come to see as your ‘second family,’ and coming home to have your parents well-up with tears seeing how much you have matured and how much the experience has influenced you to go to a college campus with a viable Jewish atmosphere and to consider spending even more time in Israel on a Masa program…. But just know: if you choose this high school program, you will be disqualified from a free 10-day trip in college.” Unfortunately, for many identifying, committed and involved Jewish teenagers the choice is being made for them by cardiologists. If it were my kid? I’d send her/him to a high school program….in a heart beat.
    Dr. Joe Freedman
    Director, Ramah Programs in Israel


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