Our Birthright

If you are between the ages of 15 and 26, you should pay attention to this particular column. Actually, if you are the parent of anyone 15 to 26, you should read what follows, on the theory that you are likely to be the person paying the bills.

“The bills” in this instance concern a trip to Israel, and they will be covered by a new program called Birthright Israel, which has been launched by two North American Jewish leaders, philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt. They are planning to offer every Jewish North American youth 15 to 26 years of age a first time free trip to Israel.

In essence, they are raising funds for a grant program that will cover a young person’s travel and about 10 days in one of several existing accredited programs in Israel ( hiking, touring, studying, etc.). It is to begin in the year 2000 and the ideal, on the part of the originators, is to send every Jewish American to Israel for a “first time,” the notion being that a second and third will likely follow.

The aim is to further a sense of Jewish identity, to make a connection with one’s Jewish self and community back home, and it is viewed by Bronfman and Steinhardt as a “birthright” for every Jewish American. To this end, they have embarked on a plan to create a $300 million fund, with contributions from the Israel government, from North American Federations and from individual philanthropists and philanthropic organizations. Bronfman (who is chairman of the Seagram Company Ltd.) and Steinhardt (a Wall Street financier) will each contribute $1 million a year for five years. “Every Jewish youth will be eligible to participate in a trip that will change their lives,” said Mr. Bronfman at a press conference in Jerusalem last November. “This is a gift from our generation to our children and grandchildren.”

Who could quarrel with such a bold and imaginative and wonderful idea? Not I. It seems a grand idea to me, but — how can I say this without poisoning the well? — also a dream that is somewhat innocent “around the edges.”

Birthright Israel is clearly a response to some of the very real dilemmas that confront North American Jewry today. These include concerns about the high rate of intermarriage and/or assimilation; the limited sense of Jewish identity; and the paltry knowledge of Jewish history and culture by American Jews. In short, there is a fear that we might shrink as a people (in North America at least) if not outright disappear.

The theory underlying Birthright Israel then is that a connection to Israel may serve as an effective way to lead young people back to their Jewish roots. In a reflexive sort of way it is an idea most of us would readily support.

Local Jewish educators and leaders will tell you that young people who return from a program in Israel come back all fired up. Their synagogue attendance increases, they link up with Jewish programs, they feel a strong attachment to Israel.

To be sure there probably is a strong self-selective link present. Many of the youngsters who visit Israel — for a school term, a summer program, a visit with friends or family — already have ties to Jewish life and a Jewish identity. But the problem is their numbers are dismally small: Only 3 percent, according to a report in Denver’s Intermountain Jewish News. Colorado’s Israel programs, according to the paper, “are one of the most numerical successful in the nation, but still only send 11 percent of the area Jewish teens to the Holy Land.”

The premise of Bronfman and Steinhardt is that money serves as the largest obstacle to an Israel trip. Too expensive; enter Birthright Israel. Money will no longer function as an excuse. Now young Jewish Americans will be provided a way to connect with Jewish culture and tradition — as well as with the people of Israel. But as some critics have pointed out it is not clear that financial need is the key factor. Among the broad range of Jewish adults, Europe is the preferred destination, not Israel. Why should it be any different for their children? When you actually look at those teen-agers who opt for Israel, it often seems as though they are drawn there because of family interest or because of peers. They are already predisposed towards Israel and, presumably, Jewish identity.

All of which suggests to me that the Bronfman-Steinhardt program will enable those youngsters who truly lack funds to experience Israel (a first-rate idea), but will have only a modest impact on most other families.

There is, of course, a larger question that needs to be answered: Does a trip to Israel lead everyone towards a deeper connection with either Israel or Jewishness?

Rabbi Avi Shafran of Agudath Israel of America, an organization of Orthodox Jews, believes the program’s Jewish content is scant and fears that there is “much in Israel that could conceivably have a less than salubrious effect on organized Jewish souls.” For him, Israel alone does not necessarily equate with Judaism or a substantive Jewish identity. Ironically, my own non-Orthodox orientation bears some of this out.

When one of my sons graduated college, I took him with me on a trip to Ariel, a city just over the Green Line and with (then) a population of about 10,000. We traveled with Ron Nachman, the Likud mayor of Ariel as he campaigned for a seat in the Knesset. I was the journalist, my son was the photographer. We followed Ron as he attended wedding receptions and bar mitzvah parties; meetings with Ariel Sharon and with then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir; and even an all-night off-the-record session with settlers who showed up for a meeting with pistols tucked in their belts, looking like characters out of an American western.

It was a splendid trip. We each learned much about Israel. But the experience made us feel very much like someone from a different culture; not more or less Jewish, but very much like an American. I have visited Israel about 15 times since then; I have many friends there now; and I still look forward with pleasure to each trip. But I also return always feeling much more American than Jewish. It is the Israeli identity that seems so marked — in part I suppose because most of the (secular) people I meet take their Jewishness for granted, while proclaiming their national identity.

Oddly enough, it is in Europe, not Israel, that I feel most connected to my identity as a Jewish American. I suspect that’s related to the war and the fate of Jews in Europe; to the way Europeans still think of us first as Jews, and only second as Americans; and to the sense of separateness and (Jewish) pride that curiously is engendered in me whenever I travel in England or on the Continent. On these occasions I find myself seeking out Jewish history and culture and personalities, as though my Jewish roots and connections were scattered across Europe.

I have lived in France, England and Belgium. It was always made clear to me by non-Americans in those countries, or so I thought, that I was first and last, a Jew; that I was only partially an American. I took this to mean (and here my paranoia asserted itself) that should the 1930s and ’40s resurface in Europe, I had better be quick and resourceful. Being an American might not suffice.

I loved living and working overseas; and still leap at the chance to visit Europe. But I always return feeling freshly American, and very much bound by my Jewish identity.

In light of this I wonder if it would be possible to suggest that Bronfman and Steinhardt expand their Birthright program to — no, I can see already, it won’t fly. –Gene Lichtenstein