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.
As sociologist Eric Klinenberg has shown, singletons are known to play essential yet unappreciated roles in animating public spaces and communities. More needs to be done to promote an understanding of Jewish belonging as tied to all the stages of one’s life. By focusing on marriage and the family, Birthright claims victory over community erosion yet dismisses the opportunity to engage a growing demographic capable of dedicating the time and resources needed to implement the creative innovations and actions that can redefine American Judaism for a new generation.
My research and personal experiences suggest Birthright participants are unaware of the concerns regarding American Jewish continuity — the very concerns that prompted philanthropists to create the program in the first place. Since the “crisis of continuity” is never explicitly addressed on these tours, participants don’t see a pressing need to engage as individual actors once they return home. By taking Jews from their American context and placing them in Israel, participants don’t orient their Jewish concerns toward their own communities, but instead direct them toward Israel. This reinforces a passive form of American Judaism that requires no active engagement beyond a symbolic affinity to a distant land, and a flexible agreement regarding future familial decisions. This is a missed opportunity, because the rich history of American Judaism can provide models for local community engagement, exciting returning singletons and reorienting American Jews back toward their local communities.
To Birthright’s credit, it has invested in alumni outreach programs. Birthright Next, for example, encourages returning young adults to join existing Jewish communities through regional activities that focus on philanthropy, religious social events and intellectual conversations regarding contemporary Jewish life. But successes are limited to college campus outreach programs and major urban centers with already significant and active Jewish populations. What about the smaller Jewish communities across North America in need of more structure and organizational involvement?
Birthright is more than just a new rite of passage; it is becoming a definitive feature of American Judaism. Unless it provides tools or references for Jewish life outside of marriage and the family, this brief and expensive moment of Jewish identification will fail to create any lasting substance capable of nourishing and enlivening future generations.
Jillian Powers is a postdoctoral fellow in American culture studies at Washington University in St. Louis.