Birthright Israel, which offers free 10-day trips to Israel for diaspora Jews aged 18-26, will be celebrating their 10 year anniversary this winter. In that time they have taken over 200,000 participants to Israel. An increasing number of those who take advantage of the trip come from an interfaith home, according to Gary Rosenblatt, editor of the (New York) Jewish Week. After talking with many children of intermarriage during a recent Birthright trip, Rosenblatt believes this is one of the best ways for the Jewish community to engage this population. He writes:
I have come to believe that for all its flaws, including a “party” atmosphere for some, a decidedly low-key approach to Zionism and Judaism per se, and a lack of in-depth follow-up after the trips, Birthright is the most ambitious, exciting and successful of Jewish educational/identity projects.
He came to this conclusion because all the participants he talked to on the trip “spoke of the experience in glowing terms: awesome, amazing, eye-opening, life changing.” Citing surveys, Gary writes that the trip does lead to a stronger Jewish identity and deeper connection with the Jewish community. Though he mentions the lack of in-depth follow up, Birthright NEXT (the trip’s alumni arm) has helped participants stay connected in creative and meaningful ways.
We have long been promoting Birthright Israel as a program that successfully utilizes outreach methodology, but we would now like to see more of the Jewish community follow their lead. Why should young adults only experience an open-minded, non-judgmental Jewish environment during their brief sequestering in Israel? Birthright has done an amazing job of welcoming anyone who says their Jewish. They don’t expect prior Jewish knowledge. And most famously, they don’t expect the unaffiliated to pay. A free 10-day trip to Israel – with opportunities to bond and network with peers and experience a sense of Jewish community – is just a taste of what we have to offer upon their return. The same idea can and should be applied to synagogues and Jewish institutions across North America. All Jews on the periphery – whether intermarried/interpartnered couples, adult children of intermarriage, or LGBT – deserve to have a chance to explore and connect to their heritage. And they shouldn’t have to pay for that opportunity.
These outreach methodologies work, but to welcome the literally millions of unengaged Jews currently on the periphery, the rest of the Jewish community has to buy into outreach on the same massive scale that they’ve bought into Birthright Israel.