On a recent month-long trip to India, we saw the expected: saris and kurtas of every color and design, magnificent Hindu and Buddhist temples, snow-capped Himalayan peaks and — of course — the breathtaking Taj Mahal.
We also witnessed something totally unanticipated and completely improbable: the rejuvenation of Jewish life in India, a transformation due in large part to the positive experience 167 young Jews from India gained as a result of their involvement in the Taglit-Birthright Israel program.
The first busload of Birthright participants from India arrived in Israel in 2003 and, as we learned, Jewish life on the Subcontinent has not been the same since. There is a renewed excitement and energy among the young Jews of India, and a special sense of belonging to a global Jewish community perhaps unlike anything in this community’s 2,000-year history.
We saw proof of this in Mumbai, where we were privileged to attend a wedding at the Magen David Synagogue. The ceremony featured traditional rituals of India’s Bene Israel community, including the groom singing to the bride as she approaches the chuppah , the placement of a gold chain by the groom around the neck of the bride (indicating that she has entered into the groom’s family), the dipping of the wedding ring in the wine cup just before the Kiddush (sanctifying the ring to make it more than a mere symbol of marriage).
The program noted that the couple, Yuval Moses and Celina Talkar, “met in the Sacred Holy Land.” We discovered that the couple met on a Birthright trip! At the reception, an outdoor affair attended by 1,000 people, we encountered four other couples that met on Birthright trips, including an additional set of newlyweds.
In Pune, an industrial city approximately 120 miles southeast of Mumbai that is home to fewer than 200 Jews, we met two young men who are Birthright alumni at the Ohel David Synagogue. They explained to us that for them, and for the other young Jews of Pune, Birthright is their Jewish lifeline to the world.
Many here in the United States tend to think of Birthright Israel mostly as a program that provides young American Jews free trips to Israel. In fact, the more than 200,000 young Jews who have participated in Birthright trips hail from 52 countries around the globe.
Some come from small Jewish communities that have comparatively few resources and are isolated from the world’s major Jewish population centers. Birthright participants have included more than 130 Jews from Cuba, 400 from Azerbaijan, 160 from Venezuela, 1,050 from Hungary and young people from Paraguay, Bolivia and Peru.
Jews went global long before it was fashionable. That means we are perfectly positioned to take advantage of globalization, but only if we work hard to nurture our common heritage, honor our common ancestry and build a common future. Our young people are among the most mobile in the world, but there is a need to build connections that reach across borders and last a lifetime.
Birthright Israel does precisely that. From Mumbai to Melbourne, from Delhi to Dnipropetrovsk, from Pune to Philadelphia, young Jews are connecting with their peers, their people and their homeland. As we saw for ourselves all over India, Birthright has become an essential component of the Jewish future, a vital point of connection for a global people in danger of growing further and further apart.
Of course, along with Birthright’s tremendous success have come challenges. Currently, more young people sign up for trips within 24 hours of the opening of registration than Birthright can afford to accommodate. Many of those placed on waiting lists will sadly never make it to Israel on a Birthright trip. This is a disservice to them and a lost opportunity for the Jewish world. These challenges have been exacerbated by the current economic downturn.
Given Birthright’s central place on the Jewish communal landscape, it is all too easy to take its existence for granted and to forget the void that its creation filled. But if Birthright is to continue to carry out its vital mission, the entire Jewish community must invest in its success.
We have supported Taglit-Birthright Israel from the program’s inception in 2000, and we are more committed than ever to ensuring that Birthright continues to provide trips to Israel for as many young Jews as possible. Even in difficult philanthropic times, it is vital that we make the most of every opportunity to foster among young Jews a timeless connection with Israel and with each other.
Lynn Schusterman and Sandy Cardin are the chair and president, respectively, of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and Schusterman Foundation-Israel.