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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Birthright Israel as an Rx to ‘Israel Exhaustion’

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-25-09

 

Although life in Israel is, overall, delightfully safe and calm these days, these are sobering times for the pro-Israel community abroad. Israel-bashing is all the rage in the Arab world, in European salons and at the UN. It is also becoming an increasingly popular pastime on campuses and even among some “progressive” American Jews, who confess to “Israel exhaustion.”

Smart analysts like Rabbi Daniel Gordis, author of Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End, point to structural and ideological shifts that explain why so many more young Jews throw up their hands in exhaustion rather than raising their voices in unison not just to defend Israel, but to celebrate Israel.

“The issue isn’t Israel, or utopia,” Gordis recently wrote in The Jerusalem Post. “It’s America, and the ‘I’ at the core of American sensibilities.” Challenging the community for “basically doing nothing” Gordis concluded: “Try to list the serious Jewish educational enterprises addressing this challenge, asking how American Jewish education can counter America’s unfettered individualism, or what Israel could do to help. Can you name even one? Neither can I.”

Although I have never played poker with my friend and role model Rabbi Gordis, I will see him, and raise him, on his analysis. Not only do too many North American Jewish enterprises fail to counter American individualism, careerism and materialism – too much North American Jewish life fosters individualism, careerism and materialism. We need think-tanks analyzing this problem, educational, communal and religious institutions countering the problem, and the entire community embarking on a twelve-step program to end our collective addiction to the modern paganism of selfishness, individuation, acquisitiveness, hyper-ambition and greed.

Yet we must do this subtly, moderately, because North American individualism, careerism and materialism are also keys to North American Jewish liberty, creativity and vitality. To get the right balance, to find the right mix, we must blend in Jewish values, spirituality, textual learning, an appreciation of history, Zionist passion, a love of Israel, the power of community and the sheer fun of living Jewish, loving Jewish, doing Jewish.

Fortunately, the day school movement in North America has flagship schools, including Akiva School in Montreal and Gann Academy in Boston, that are succeeding with this North American Jewish recipe.  Moreover, modern Jewry and the pro-Israel community have an ace in the hole: Taglit-Birthright Israel, the single most successful Jewish communal innovation of the last decade (probably longer, but it is only ten years old). Birthright Israel exhilaration counters the Israel exhaustion of the blame-Israel-firsters, the my, my, my, now, now, now individuation of the all-American me-firsters, and the “whatever” alienation of the too-cool-to-be-Jewish, Jewish hipsters.

Birthright Israel’s free ten-day trips to Israel invite Jewish students to press the reset button on their Jewish experiences, their Israel connection, their Zionist identities, their personal worldviews and individual paths. Birthright participants engage Israel through sites and delights, not through politics and problems. They learn to appreciate the power of community, Jewish and otherwise, because – in the spirit of the Minyan, Jewish communal prayer – they get a free ticket to join 40 others on this journey, not simply to backpack across Israel alone. And they are welcomed not hectored to continue, to pursue their own Jewish journeys. The “no strings attached” promise of birthright – meaning no demands for payback, financial or ideological – reflects  the program’s educational openness, integrity and effectiveness – contrary to caricatures from the left for being too heavyhanded and from the right for being too namby-pamby.

The Birthright trinity of land, history and people leavened with friendship, a family feeling, 24/7 intensity, and fun exposes Jewish students, on the cusp of adulthood, to an Israel they never read about in the newspapers and, I regret to say, often a quality of Jewish life they never experienced back home. The timing is perfect. Students 18 to 26 are making the life-decisions about career, quality of life, and love that will shape who they are for the coming decades. Moreover, the tone is just right. Clearly, birthright has a pro-Israel, pro-Jewish, pro-Zionist perspective. But smart educators know that today’s youth cannot be bullied or guilt-tripped into believing or belonging. Despite all the troubles, slanders and terrorism of the decade, 220,000 Jewish students have participated, with the overwhelming majority thrilled, and many returning to their communities ready to be the passionate Jews – and Jewish leaders – of tomorrow.

And yet, in a reflection of stunning, unconscionable, communal myopia, not every student who applies can go on Birthright. The Jerusalem Post reports that this winter alone, “more than 13,000 young, mostly unaffiliated Jews from around the world were turned away” due to lack of funding, and that “80% of wait-listed birthright applicants never reapply.” Here a program with a proven track-record responds to the great communal challenge of our time by inspiring young Jews, yet somehow not enough individual Jews and communal institutions have decided to fund it yet.

My parents report that among their “golden age” peers, grandparents are always saying how “wonderful” Birthright is. I wonder, do any of them decide therefore to take some responsibility and send another deserving youngster – or 40 on a bus – or 100 from a community – as thanks? People love to ask Birthright’s founders Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt “how can I ever repay you?” Bronfman and Steinhardt probably are too polite to answer: “by donating generously to send others.”

Birthright began as an act of guerilla philanthropy – as Messrs. Bronfman and Steinhardt rushed ahead, before all the proper committees met, before all the Jewish communal protocols were followed – and they succeeded. This act of guerilla philanthropy should now be rewarded – when the crunch is on – with a massive display of grassroots giving. People should give what they can, raise more from others, and demand that their Federations increase support. And no one who reads this essay can ever say, “no one ever asked me to help” – I just did.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. He just became the voluntary Chairman of the Taglit-Birthright International Education Committee.