What I Learned from the Birthright Israel Report

I have just read with interest the latest report about the impact of Birthright Israel. This celebrated 10-day Israel immersion program proves once again that its impact on participants is robust and–the point of this latest report–long-lasting. Even a decade after participating in the trip, participants show greater Jewish engagement on a wide range of measures (compared to similar kids who applied to the program but never got to go)–from feeling connected to Israel, to celebrating Jewish holidays, to synagogue membership. But the focus of this report seems to be the finding that:

Taglit alumni inmarry at rates greater than would be expected based on socio-demographic research, and at significantly greater rates than others who did not participate. (Page 30)

More precisely, Birthright participants are 45% more likely than nonparticipants to marry other Jews.

That this should be highlighted as the study’s most important finding is disappointing. Intermarriage by itself should not be seen as an ultimate ill plaguing the Jewish community, disengagement should. We know that, from a sociological standpoint, intermarried households who are Jewishly engaged look very similar to inmarried households; and additionally, unengaged Jewish households look very similar as well, regardless of whether both spouses are Jewish or only one.

I would like, instead, to highlight a different finding of this same report:

“Taglit participants and nonparticipants who are intermarried are equally likely to be raising their oldest child Jewish.” (Page 24)

Put another way, participation in a Birthright trip has little or no effect on those who choose to enter into an interfaith relationship. They are just as likely to raise their children as Jews as those kids who never went on the trip (about 50% of both groups raise their children Jewish). In the same vane, intermarried nonparticipants are just as likely as intermarried participants to circumcise their sons and have Jewish naming ceremonies for their daughters (about 30%). Even if we take children out of the equation, on one of the major indicators of a decision to make a Jewish home – choice of a Jewish clergy to officiate one’s interfaith marriage ceremony – Birthright’s impact is low.

“In the case of intermarried respondents, there are no differences between participants and nonparticipants in their choice of Jewish clergy: thirty percent chose a Jewish clergy to officiate.” (Page 23)

Even if we keep in mind that the sample of intermarried Birthright alumni is too small to make sweeping conclusions (as the authors noted in an article in the Jewish Week), this is a curious finding. One would expect the effects of a program as impactful as Birthright, whose effects are still felt years after participation in the program, be replicated among participants who choose a partner of a different religious background.

It is important to remember that these numbers mask the reality of Jewish intermarriage statistics. My colleague Paul Golin explained this nicely a while ago: those who marry non-Jews create twice as many new households as those who in-marry (because it takes two Jews to form an in-marriage, and only one Jew for an intermarriage). So Birthright participants in fact make up about as many intermarried households as in-married ones. But within those intermarried households, Birthright’s celebrated effects seem to disappear.

It may be worth considering the possibility that there is some intervening factor, whose effects trump those of the 10-day trip. One possibility is the nature of the homes that the participants grow up in. We know from the 2001 National Jewish Population Study that Jews with intermarried parents are more than three times as likely to intermarry themselves. If those kids who intermarry come mostly from intermarried households, it may be that for them the nature of the intermarried home they grew up in (i.e., its affiliation and engagement with the Jewish community) is the decisive factor, rather than Birthright participation.

What if immersive Jewish programs such as Birthright focused on making meaningful Jewish connections for participants and their families, regardless of whom they marry? In-marriage by itself does not assure Jewish engagement. On the other hand, we know that the majority of North American households with a Jewish parent are interfairth households. Even if all American Jews had the low (29%) rate of intermarriage of Birthright alumni, it would still mean about as many intermarried households as inmarried ones. What we need is more meaningful ways of engaging with Judaism and Jewishness. The Jewish Outreach Institute continues to work for a more inclusive Jewish community by taking Jewishness outside the walls of Jewish institutions (through Public Space JudaismSM), and by providing all who want to join our tent with the means to do so (with programs such as The Mothers Circle), opening the doors for all who wish to enter.

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