Extending the Birthright privilege
Sophie Ambrose grew up without religion on a hippie commune near Jerusalem, Ark. Her mother had rejected Judaism, her father had rejected his Christian background. Ambrose explored churches on her own as a teenager, took a world religions class in college, and as a graduate student in Kansas, began to seek out Hillel and the sparse local Jewish life. Then one day, looking for classes, she Googled “Judaism + college + students” and came upon the Taglit-Birthright Web site.
The offer of a free, 10-day trip to Israel, which the Jewish community has been gifting to 18- to 26-year-old Jews since 2000, changed the trajectory of Ambrose’s life.
The first stop on the Birthright trip Ambrose took during the winter of 2003-04 — straight from the airport — was Masada, the first-century mountaintop site high above the Judean Desert that serves as a symbol of Jewish heroism.
“Everyone was really cranky and tired, and they made us hike Masada, and I remember this moment I had, this moment of standing there and hearing this story of our ancestors being there before us,” said Ambrose, a doctoral student in speech pathology for deaf children, during a recent phone interview from her apartment in the Pico-Robertson area. “And I was looking out at this land, that in some way I was beginning to picture belonged to me, and there was this moment where I went from being not connected, to being connected.”
Birthright’s success in awakening a connection to Jewish heritage and Israel is unprecedented in American Jewish life. As the number of alumni continues to multiply, they are infusing new energy into American Jewry.
Ambrose is one of approximately 10,000 Birthright alumni living in Los Angeles. By the end of this summer, North America will be home to 191,000 Jewishly pumped Birthright alumni. Around 24,000 North Americans and another 4,000 Jews from around the world will have made the pilgrimage this summer alone, and 16,000 were placed on waiting lists and didn’t get to go this round. In addition, more than 13,000 North Americans went last winter.
If those numbers persist, within the next decade about half of all Jewish young adults will have been on a Birthright Israel trip, turning it into a rite of passage almost as common as a bar or bat mitzvah.
The question now facing the organizers of Birthright — and the rest of the Jewish community — is what to do with all those alumni.
Ambrose has become a veritable Birthright poster child — she has both taken and taught several classes in Judaism, returned to Israel twice, become involved in The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and other organizations, currently serves on the United Jewish Communities speakers bureau and now observes Shabbat and kosher laws and has even gotten her mother to go to High Holy Days services. But most Birthright alumni, though their attitudes change, need more of a push to make behavioral changes.
“The idea of Birthright was to create a spark in people who really needed a spark if they were to remain in some meaningful sense Jewish, and it has done that,” philanthropist Michael Steinhardt said in a phone interview. “But it’s just 10 days.”
Steinhardt, along with Charles and Andrea Bronfman, envisioned and began funding Birthright in 1999.
“I feel extraordinarily gratified that those 10 days have worked as well as they have for as many people as they have, and that Birthright has grown to the point where, frankly, it is the only new entity in the Jewish world that is really something that catches the imagination of anybody,” he said. “But again, 10 days is 10 days. The real challenge is taking that spark and igniting it.”
In the past year, Steinhardt has fueled the next chapter of Birthright with cash and an organizational structure in the form of a new program, Birthright NEXT, founded with a budget of about $8 million and aimed at keeping alumni connected and focused on creating a vibrant Jewish life.
But harnessing alumni energy for long-term behavioral changes — for their own benefit and for the Jewish community’s invigoration — is proving to be a more difficult goal than the formidable but circumscribed goal of changing lives in just 10 days.