Friday, July 20, 2018

Carly Kohlhagen (extreme right) with her Birthright group at Yad Vashem saying goodbye to soldiers.

Isaac Choua on Birthright in the Masada Synagogue: “As I got up to pray the Amida, I remembered Jerusalem.”

Brandeis University researchers recently published a study suggesting American Jewish young adults who applied for Birthright trips supported Israel in its recent war with Hamas. While this might not seem important, its author is perhaps attempting to compare those who went to Israel to those who didn’t, as if this is analogous to studies where non-selected applicants act as a kind of control group. However, that control is flawed; Birthright applicants aren’t a random group–applicants all have at least one Jewish parent and have interest in spending time in Israel–and those who strongly disagree with Israel’s policy in Gaza might be less likely to travel there. Regardless, it begs the question about whether the impact of Birthright Israel might have more of an effect on Diaspora Jews’ views and public opinion than previously recorded.

CEO of Birthright, Gidi Mark, says the most rewarding part of his job is “meeting the participants and seeing the impact of the ten-day trip that eventually will come to change the future of the Jewish people.” This summer’s conflict was particularly challenging for Birthright, and as Mark noted, “Maintaining the safety on trips was our primary concern, while still ensuring that participants were able to enjoy the once-in a lifetime experience.

“Closely monitoring the situation, Taglit-Birthright Israel was constantly implementing the most stringent security measures–as we always do. Trip itineraries for all participants on the ground were approved daily by the people in our ‘Situation Monitoring Room,’” he said.

When asked how he thinks this summer’s conflict has impacted the Jewish community’s perception of Birthright, Mark said, “We launched the summer with the celebration of our 400,000th participant. Our joy over the success of the program continued, even as fighting broke out in Gaza. We remained steadfast in our commitment to our participants to provide a rich and meaningful trip with profoundly significant moments of discovery that being in Israel uniquely provides.”

After this summer’s ludicrous Slate article suggesting Birthright was responsible for the death of lone soldier Max Steinberg, Birthright’s goals are of particular interest. According to Mark, Birthright’s mission is to help participants discover their connection to Israel–to the land and the people.

When asked if Birthright has an agenda he noted, “Taglit-Birthright Israel is an apolitical organization. The trips we run are primarily educational, and participants are encouraged to explore the many narratives of ancient and modern Israel and to ask questions, so that they may forge both their own opinions about Israel and their Jewish identities.”

Ari Ziegler, an OU Israel Free Spirit Birthright alumnus and now a staff member, said his feelings changed after Birthright. “I felt closer to my Israeli roots,” he said.

“Before going on the trip, I was pretty apathetic towards Israel and its connection to my Jewish identity, but I started exploring more and being involved on campus more,” he added. For Ziegler, Birthright’s goal is to connect students to their Judaism and Jewish heritage in a new way. “I knew about my heritage in Israel but never felt it. After my participation in Birthright as a student, I said, ‘I don’t know if I feel what Israel means to my family yet, but I think for the first time in my life I can understand it.’”

Now as Birthright staff, Ziegler’s goal for the participants is “They should have a fraction of the understanding and eventual feeling I gained from my trip.” When asked about Birthright’s agenda, he noted that it depends on the trip. “You have a different focus when leading Modern Orthodox students than one leading a less affiliated group, which is the case with most Israel Free Spirit trips. When you lead a less affiliated group, many of the students are getting their first real exposure to the practices of Judaism itself, along with the State of Israel–so you also teach them about Shabbat and kashrut and different aspects of Jewish observance.

“When you have a group of Modern Orthodox students, you don’t have to focus on that as much, if at all. There are also Israeli participants on the trip and this gives the participants a glimpse of what a Jew living in a Jewish State looks like. Often they see that they have more in common than they first thought. During registration we ask applicants what they hope to gain from the trip and the answers are available to the trip staff so we can focus on the individual, where they are looking to grow, and what they’re looking to connect to.”

Did he see changes in the participants? “I’ve had some at closing session passionately proclaim that they want to make Aliyah. That’s how strongly they felt the experience changed them. I’ve had participants who said, ‘Yeah, it was cool to see the sites and I learned some stuff,’ and then later became passionate advocates of Israel and formed deeper personal connections with Israeli history and their own Jewish identity. And sometimes it stays at the ‘it was cool to see the sites’ level, which is fine too.”

When asked about keeping in touch with participants, Ziegler said, “We don’t call the groups of people on these trips Group #180 or Bus #180. We talk about them by saying ‘Mishpacha #180’ and I think that’s very important. We’re making a family, a network of people connected by mutual experiences that touched them all at varying levels of depth. But all those experiences were together. I think that they stay a ‘family’ at least on some level for a long time.”

Participants viewed the goal and possible agendas of Birthright a bit differently. Carly Kohlhagen, who is making Aliyah and joining the army after her Birthright trip this summer, described Birthright’s goal as “To connect Jews from all different backgrounds to their religion and homeland, regardless of any previous knowledge of Israel or religion. Birthright was able to show me things first-hand that influenced my desire to make Aliyah.”

“They definitely showed us both sides. They showed us the problems that residents face–they didn’t make Israel out to be utopian. We had speakers showing both Israeli’s and Palestinian’s views. They really did educate us,” she added. When asked if her opinions on the conflict have changed because of Birthright, Kohlhagen said, “I’m more aware of what’s happening and more educated about the situations and what they stem from.”

Similarly, Miriam Herst, a YU student, remarked, “My opinions definitely changed because of my Birthright trip. I’m not sure that my opinions wouldn’t have changed in the same way had I gone to Israel by myself, but I do think the programming affected me, as well as the integration with the Israeli participants on the trip. I find myself reading more Israeli newspapers than before,” she said.

Elana Betaharon, a YU alumna who was on Birthright in June, said, “The trip has barely any religious aspects to it. We kept Shabbat, and we kept kosher, but you buy your own lunch, so you have a choice of what you want to eat. There is definitely a Zionist agenda–with the trip to Mount Herzl, the Herzl Museum, Ben Gurion’s grave, and the Holocaust museum–showing us the roots of Israel and what it stands for. Our tour guide and staff were observant but didn’t push anything on us.”

Betaharon added, “Someone on my trip thought Israel was a war zone, but we went stargazing with our tour guide, and she came to the conclusion that Israel was the land of peace. I thought that insight was extremely beautiful as we stared into the miles of empty, quiet desert. I think that is the goal of Birthright, to show everyone the land of peace.”

Some participants, like Isaac Choua, a Baruch College student, did feel Birthright had an agenda. “To entice people to make Aliyah, donate to Israel, defend Israel on campus, and help people reclaim their Judaism,” he stated.

Gidi Mark’s take on the results of the Brandeis study was that his program is a success. “The results demonstrate that Jewish young adults who participate in Taglit-Birthright Israel come away from the experience with a connection to Israel, and a strong interest and a commitment to being informed about its people and its challenges. They will have lifelong relationships and connections with the people and the State of Israel.”

By Rivka Hia