After Five Years, Birthight Shows Success in Building Jewish Identity

Birthright israel, the free trip to Israel for Diaspora youth, makes a profound impact on a participant’s Jewish identity, according to a recent study. Findings from the study, conducted by independent researchers at Brandeis University, were released Dec. 15 at a conference in Herzliya, Israel. The full report has yet to be released.

“It changes Jewish identity,” Leonard Saxe, co-author of the study and director of the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, said of birthright.

Before going on birthright, participants typically are less engaged with Judaism and Israel than those who participate in other Israel programs, who often have strong Jewish backgrounds.

That may not be surprising, since birthright is open only to those who have never been on a peer trip to Israel, a segment that is likely to include youth less interested in Jewish identity.

Afterward, however, birthright participants show levels of identification similar to those who go on other programs, Saxe said.

Birthright alumni may not become more religiously observant, but they are more likely to take Jewish studies courses at college and return to Israel on other programs, paving the way for increased Jewish commitment.

The study comes as birthright israel kicks off its sixth year amid ongoing struggles for funding.

The general consensus in the community is one of widespread support for birthright israel, but funding constraints have been cited as an impediment to the program’s success.

Begun in late 1999 as a five-year pilot project to strengthen the identity of young Jews, the $210 million program was to be funded evenly by three partners: a group of 14 philanthropists, the Israeli government and world Jewish communities, primarily the North American Jewish federation system.

But the intifada, which began in late 2000, drained Israel’s resources and scared off some would-be participants.

In the end, more than $150 million was invested in birthright its first five years, with the lion’s share — $71.6 million — coming from philanthropists. Israel contributed more than $35 million and world Jewish communities donated more than $44 million, said Sandy Cardin, executive director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, one of the philanthropists involved.

Many of the philanthropists, most notably Michael Steinhardt, have voiced outrage over the failure of other funding partners to pony up.

But Cardin has faith: “All the partners in the program are committed to doing their best to share the cost,” he said.

Some 70,000 youth have taken part in birthright, and the program has pumped some $110 million into the Israeli economy, according to birthright officials.

In year six, birthright is receiving $10 million from the Israeli government, $12 million from philanthropists and $10 million from the federation system, half of which is being provided by its overseas partner, the Jewish Agency for Israel, said Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, which contribute to birthright.

Funding is secure for the more than 15,000 young people expected to visit Israel on birthright in 2005, Solomon said.

The program is expected to continue indefinitely, he said, but enrollment depends on funding — and there’s not enough space for everyone who wants to go.

“At a time when everybody is decrying the sad reality of how many young Jews are disaffected, to turn away thousands who want to go to Israel, to connect to Israel and to connect to their Jewish selves is very unfortunate,” Solomon said. “As long as there’s one kid on a waiting list, the status is not as good as it should be.”

Solomon, who said he hadn’t seen the newest study, said the challenge would be to communicate its message to birthright’s funding partners.

Among the report’s findings, 35 percent of participants and 39 percent of non-participants — who applied for the trip but didn’t go for one reason or another — said they felt very connected to Israel before birthright.

Several months after the trip, 60 percent of participants said they felt very connected to Israel.

Two to four years after their trip, more than half of the participants said they still felt very connected to the Jewish state, and almost all participants evaluated the trip positively.

“It’s unlike anything seen in the evaluation literature of educational programs,” Saxe told the Herzliya conference.

Additionally, 85 percent of birthright alumni at college said being Jewish was very important to them, the same percentage reported by alumni of other Israel programs, who typically are more Jewishly identified to begin with.

In a Brandeis study three years ago there wasn’t enough evidence to judge behavioral changes. But now there is such evidence, Saxe said, noting that many student leaders of Hillel: the Foundation for Jewish Life on Campus are birthright alumni.

In addition, he noted, many birthright alumni later return to Israel on study-abroad or other programs.

“We know that many of these people would not have been in these programs were it not for birthright,” he said. The program “has significant effects, and it has fairly large effects.”

For many young Jews, Jewishness may rank low among the identities they feel, Saxe said. But birthright “pushes it up on the list so that it becomes much more important, much more central,” he said.

Still, it will take years to determine the program’s long-term impact: In 10 to 20 years, behaviors such as marrying a Jew or raising Jewish kids will offer more insight, Saxe said.

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