Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School
I often joke that I am a total "Birthright poster child." I am now a graduate of The Davidson School of JTS, but it wasn't so long ago that I was working at Disney World, had zero Jewish friends, and was the "token Jew" in any given social setting. Then I went to Israel, and I'm now an MA graduate and a Jewish communal professional.
Experiencing Israel as I did through Birthright was a tipping point for me because, before this transformative experience, I did not realize that I felt an absence of Jewishness in my life. As part of the "millennial" generation of emerging adults, I balance multiple identities on a regular basis. The greater the variety of choices in our lives, the less attractive it becomes to commit to just one or a few. The question for Jewish education is how we can present Judaism as an attractive life focus for this population.
In The Future of the American Jew, Mordecai Kaplan differentiates between the "we-feeling" we enjoy as Americans and the isolation we might sometimes feel as Jews. One of his most compelling arguments for ways of filling this void for Diaspora Jewry involved the establishment of the State of Israel as the center of Jewish interests. He wrote that the State of Israel would "[imbue] the scattered remnants of the Jewish people with a sense of unity."1
The Jewish Theological Seminary, Taglit-Birthright Israel, and other groups take a note from Kaplan in drawing on the centrality of Israel in Jewish identity formation. And it works. I've seen it in action during the Birthright experience six times now, once as a participant and five times as a staff member. But, as intensely inspiring as the trip can be, what happens when the bus drives away and "real life" begins again?
In my graduate research at The Davidson School, I focused on the experiences of four 22- to 26-year-olds fresh off a trip I staffed. All of them acknowledged, to some degree, the "agenda" of the trip (that is, the perceived "make Jewish babies" messaging), as well as a level of skepticism about the larger impact in terms of group connections and dynamic. None of this, however, superseded feelings of continuing devotion toward Israel. Thus, while the socialization of the trip is difficult to maintain, its educational elements may have a lasting effect.
Building upon those social elements, once the excitement of the trip subsides, demands a strategy for removing the barriers to Jewish participation. It is about more than just providing broad-based programming and engaging community spaces. More importantly, successful engagement must involve a deliberate departure from the crisis narrative that acts as a deterrent to active Jewish participation.
Placing an emphasis on Jewish continuity (the obligation to "make Jewish babies") does more damage than good, as it promotes a Jewish identification driven by guilt, which seems unappealing. Young adults should not feel they must "marry Jewish" simply to propagate a Jewish future, but rather because Judaism provides joy and meaning to their lives. They need to feel that they have a stake in Judaism, and that they have something worthwhile to pass on.
The recent much-discussed Pew Research Center report on Jewish Americans showed that, while formal institutional-based Jewish affiliation is waning, an overwhelming percentage of American Jews are proud to be Jewish and have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people. This presents an incredible opportunity for engagement, especially when coupled with an experience as powerful as a free trip to Israel.
I have heard countless firsthand accounts of how participants on trips to Israel feel forever changed. In fact, I directly attribute my own journey into Jewish education to the growth, confidence, and pride I gained from each of my own Israel experiences. I also, unfortunately, felt the ebb of the afterglow that many trip participants experience, sometimes gradually and sometimes immediately afterward. Trips to Israel such as those with Birthright have the power to open a window to Jewish exploration that is unique and powerful, although the lasting effect might be less than anticipated by a program's developers and supporters. It's up to us, as Jewish educators and those working in the field or doing direct service, to develop ways for young Jews to become engaged—maintaining an awareness of the trends of Jewish millennials—in a way that is natural, relevant, and exciting.
1 Mordecai Kaplan, The Future of the American Jew, 3rd ed. (New York: Reconstructionist Press, 1981), 117.
Andrea LeVine received her master's degree in Jewish Education from the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary in 2012. She has been on six Taglit-Birthright Israel trips, five of them as a staff member. Her master's thesis was on the topic of Birthright and post-trip engagement. She is the senior programmer and community organizer for Hillel at Tulane University, and recently returned from staffing her first Tulane-based Israel trip.