Birthright Israel held its January “mega-event” Wednesday in Jerusalem. Attended by approximately 3,000 young Jews from 15 countries, it is one of a series of large-scale events Birthright occasionally puts on in order to bring together the various groups touring Israel at the same time.
Through it, it’s possible to glimpse the realities of an emerging diaspora Jewish identity that receives little attention and holds within it both positives and negatives for the Jewish future.
On the positive side of the ledger, you have the fact of Birthright itself. It has now brought nearly 300,000 young Jews to Israel, the vast majority of whom would not likely have ever gone. A 2009 report by Leonard Saxe and others at Brandeis University buttressed anecdotal evidence with figures that showed an increased feeling of attachment to the Jewish people by participants, as well as a deeper commitment to marrying other Jews and raising Jewish children.
This means all the more because of the general weakness of diaspora Jewish identity. Before Birthright, in the United States at least bar and bat mitzvah rituals with little connection to a larger Jewish life and the supplementary educational programs that precede them had long been the only shared touchstones for Jews living in increasingly isolated pockets. These served little better than as fodder for comedy or other pop culture products that mostly reinforce the notion that the ritual’s chief import is an excuse for a grand party.
To a notable extent, Birthright changes that by providing a shared experience at an older age in a living Jewish state. A new touchstone for Jewish identity is being created that, however hard some may try, is not nearly so easy to caricature.
Still, we can wonder what is being created. According to the same Saxe study, a “sense of belonging to the Jewish people” was the only measure by which the trip increased a participant’s connection. In other words, what the program is able to do, by design, is “create a sense of Jewish identity,” but, in only ten days, it cannot supply any real content to that identity. Participants return from Birthright trips probably with a deeper sense of themselves as Jews but with little to do with that desire and little knowledge upon which to base their feelings.
Now, it should be said it is difficult to overstate the importance of the creation of even this thin Jewish identity. This past summer in Israel I heard Natan Sharansky say Birthright gets its participants to realize that, simply by the fact of their Jewishness, they are part of a much more interesting story than they previously realized. It was, he said, the same awakening that he and his fellow Soviet Jews went through as a result of the Six-Day War in 1967.
The question American and other diaspora Jewry faces – those who have benefited from the trip first and the existing institutions of Jewish life second – is whether or not it can be content with this thin identity.
This isn’t the conversation we are having. Instead, far too much time has been spent on the question of whether or not a rightward shift in Israel’s politics is distancing young Jews from the country. As Haaretz unsurprisingly found in its account of the mega-event, few participants were even aware of the latest women’s rights controversy that is supposedly pushing them away.
Birthright has put a far more pressing issue on the table: will the rising generation of diaspora Jews be content with symbolic identification with a Judaism they don’t understand, or can they find in themselves the resources to create a Judaism of true meaning?