Birthright’s Effect Still Strong Years After Trip


When, at age 25, Vivian Lehrer decided to go on a Birthright Israel trip before she passed the program’s age limit, she wasn’t expecting much more than a free vacation.

A third-year law student, she’d never dated anyone Jewish and, while she’d grown up going to Hebrew school, “it didn’t affect me on a deep level,” she told The Jewish Week, and she hadn’t participated in any Jewish activities since her bat mitzvah.
Less than seven years later, Lehrer now runs Eden Village, a Jewish overnight camp she founded with her husband, Yoni Stadlin, who she met on the trip.
Most Birthright participants don’t find their soul mate on the 10-day trip or entirely change their career plans as a result. However, Lehrer — who subsequently staffed three trips and can reel off the names of countless acquaintances who have gone from being completely uninvolved Jewishly to making aliyah and/or embarking on intensive Jewish learning as a result of Birthright — is hardly the only person whose life has been dramatically altered.
Indeed, a new report from Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies — the third in an ongoing longitudinal study comparing young American Jews who participated in the free Israel trip to those who did not — finds that six to 11 years later, the experience continues to affect life choices and outlooks.
Among the findings of the study based on interviews with almost 2,000 people, Birthright alumni — when compared to those who applied for but did not end up taking a Birthright trip between 2001-06 — are:
  • 45 percent more likely to be married to someone Jewish, whether by birth or conversion (however, only 35 percent are married so far);
  • 42 percent more likely to feel “very much” connected to Israel;
  • 23 percent more likely to view raising future children as Jews as “very important”;
  • 22 percent more likely to indicate that they are at least “somewhat confident” in explaining the current situation in Israel.
Nearly 30 percent of participants have returned to Israel on subsequent trips, with 2 percent currently living there. And 25 percent are married to other Birthright alumni, although few met their spouse on the trip itself. (Seven percent of the control group is married to Birthright alumni.)
“As the Birthright population has gotten older, as they’ve moved away from the program, the effects are as strong, or even stronger, than they were,” Leonard Saxe, the director of the Cohen Center and its Steinhardt Social Research Institute, told The Jewish Week. To be sure, this is not the first Cohen Center report touting the impact of the 13-year-old initiative, which boasts 200,000 North American alumni and whose mega-philanthropist founders — Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt — have helped finance the research.
But the latest findings are noteworthy, Saxe argues, because more time has elapsed and more subjects have been added to the study, in part to address concerns that the initial group of subjects — those who participated in Birthright during the height of the second intifada — were more Jewish-identified than those who participated in later, less tumultuous, years. In addition, he says, his team of researchers has been careful not to overstate Birthright’s impact: limiting research to non-Orthodox subjects, for example, and controlling for differences in subjects’ backgrounds and amount of Jewish education.
“We’re confident this is a representative sample of the total population,” he said. “What makes this different from your typical demographic study is that we know who we don’t talk to.” The Birthright study is limited to people who applied for Birthright — in the process, providing basic data about their Jewish upbringing.
The non-participants make for a good control group because, prior to the trip, they were virtually identical demographically to the participants and because they shared an interest in traveling to Israel. (Most of these non-participants, Saxe said, would have gone on Birthright but failed to win a limited slot on the trip or were offered only a slot that conflicted with their scheduling constraints.)
One of the areas in which Birthright appears to have had the greatest impact is on participants’ marriage and childrearing attitudes and decisions. However, with only one-third of the alumni studied married so far, much remains to be seen.
Like most non-Orthodox American Jews, the study’s respondents are delaying marriage and childbearing, often into their late 30s.
In a finding the study described as “curious” and one that is notable, given the oft-stated desire of Birthright’s founders to grow the Jewish population, Birthright alumni are actually less likely than their non-alumni counterparts to be married and to have children.
While 42 percent of the control group is married, and 31 percent has at least one child, only 35 percent of the Birthright alumni are married, and only 17 percent have children.
“Birthright participants are delaying marriage,” observed Saxe. “One hypothesis is that it’s because they are looking for a Jewish partner, or they’re waiting for their non-Jewish partner to convert.”
Indeed, among the married survey respondents whose spouse was not born Jewish, alumni’s spouses are over three times more likely than the control group to have converted to Judaism.
Interestingly, intermarriage appears to eliminate the Birthright differential. Those Birthright alumni who do intermarry, and whose spouses do not convert, don’t behave differently — in terms of whether they have a rabbi at their wedding, how they are raising their children — from their intermarried counterparts in the control group.
While virtually all parents surveyed who are in-married report they are raising the child Jewish, slightly under half of the intermarried parents (same for alumni and control group) are raising their child Jewish.
However, because the sample size of intermarried alumni is relatively small, and those with children an even smaller subgroup, Saxe cautioned against reading too much into those findings.
“Because there was so much in-marriage among the Birthright participants, the pool of Birthright participants who intermarried is a small sample,” he said. “We don’t yet have enough information to parse that, but in our next survey we probably will.”
In an e-mail interview, Shaul Kelner, director of the Jewish studies program at Vanderbilt University and author of the 2010 book “Tours That Bind: Diaspora, Pilgrimage and Israeli Birthright Tourism,” said that the new study is “solid” in its methodology. However, he cautioned people not to “misinterpret its findings” by, for example, assuming that “42 percent more likely to feel very connected to Israel” means that “every person who went on [Birthright] gets their emotional Israel attachment cranked up 42 percent higher.”
Kelner divides Birthright alumni into three groups: “A minority who finds the trip profoundly transformative, another minority who now just says ‘been-there-done-that,’ and a majority who are in the middle with moderate effects that pop up now and then when the circumstances are right … Even if only two people on each bus decided to make Jewish commitments their life’s passion, you are talking about thousands of young activists and leaders that the program is inspiring. That is worth something to the American Jewish community even if all the other effects were zero. (And they are not zero).”
The reasons for Birthright’s impact remain unclear, although there are plenty of hypotheses circulating, relating to the power of an immersive “bubble” experience and the friendships and social networks it fosters.
“Birthright takes people out of their normal routines and gives them brief moment to set aside other identities and think of themselves only [as] Jews,” Kelner observed. He added, “The larger lesson that the Jewish community still has not learned is that educational travel is an incredibly powerful form of Jewish education.”
Just how many more Birthright studies will there be? Will Birthright alumni be surveyed as they retire and begin collecting Social Security (assuming Social Security survives)?
“I hope so,” Saxe said, adding that the “scientific payoff” of longitudinal sociological research is “enormous and gets larger over time.”
“I hope people can look at Birthright not just as a single program, but as a way to learn to engage people in Jewish life,” Saxe added. “To give people the opportunity to have a 24-7 experience in a Jewish context with a Jewish [community], that’s what leads people to feel strong ties to the Jewish community and to have a strong Jewish identity. Part of the challenge is how to take what we’ve learned from this experience and apply it to other areas of Jewish life.”