Taglit-Birthright Israel is transforming contemporary Jewish American culture. In its first 10 years alone, more than 200,000 young Jewish adults traveled to Israel for a free, 10-day experience.
Many believe that Birthright is now becoming the new rite of passage for Jewish youth. Yet Birthright influences feelings about Israel and Judaism more than it inspires action and engagement in the American Jewish community.
The findings from the recently released third report in the Jewish Futures Project are consistent with previous studies — Birthright participants feel more connected to Israel and indicate an interest in remaining within the Jewish community. But the same report notes that while Birthright has influenced rates of Jewish in-marriage (and conversion), only slight behavioral changes result from the experience. Compared to young Jewish adults who don’t take the trip, Birthright alumni are only slightly more likely to join a congregation, celebrate holidays and prepare meals on the Sabbath, and are no more likely to volunteer in the community. If this expensive program is a key to developing American Judaism for a new era, it will need to foster the skills and commitments needed for its participants to build Jewish communities at home.
Currently, the “success” of Birthright is measured by the likelihood that its participants will marry another Jew and raise future children within the Jewish faith. While it is sometimes lampooned as a “two-week hook-up fest,” this model should not be dismissed so flippantly — it does influence rates of in-marriage. The last two reports from the Jewish Futures Project demonstrate that Birthright participants are more likely to in-marry and convert spouses. And as those numbers increase, Birthright also influences decisions concerning religious education for participants’ children.
These decisions regarding marriage and the family are, according to the report, “key indicators of their commitment to remain part of the Jewish collective.” But I believe that there is more to sustaining and growing a vibrant Jewish community than just marrying Jewish and having Jewish babies. With singletons making up 28% of all U.S. households, according to the 2011 census, Birthright needs to adjust its model as well as its evaluative criteria for success.