To the Editor:
Birthright Israel has succeeded by allowing more than 300,000 young Jews to experience Israel’s magic directly, not through the distorting lens of conflict-obsessed reporters. But Birthright’s success also reflects its humanistic, person-centered educational philosophy.
This approach bears repeating to counter the false impression of the JTA article reporting on a debate between Peter Beinart and Barry Shrage, the president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies. Describing the popular mifgash meeting program with Israeli soldiers, Shrage added that for Birthrighters, “Their next major decision may be what fraternity they’re going to join; the Israeli’s decision is whether they’re going to live or die in a special unit.” One student, Emily Unger responded, “If that’s the attitude of people running Birthright, that the most important thing I’m thinking about is what fraternity to join, that explains why it wasn’t a program run as if I could think like an intelligent person.”
I understand Unger’s anger. No one wants to be dismissed as a mindless party animal. So let me be clear: We at Birthright respect all our participants and understand the serious dilemmas they face. The program invites 18- to 26-year-olds because we understand that it is the age of great decision-making, requiring clear values — and time to think.
Birthright Israel’s core educational principles provide a quilted theory — an integrated platform – combining an experiential approach, a culture of values, a culture of ideas, person-centered education, social interactionism and fun. We respect each participant’s intelligence, independence and integrity, only asking them to participate constructively and then draw their own conclusions.
Barry Shrage knows this. He has been one of the pioneers in the identity-building revolution sweeping the Jewish world. He was humbly acknowledging the life-and-death choices Israelis make – and American students’ good fortune in not having to make that choice.
Professor, McGill University
Chairman, International Education Committee, Birthright Israel