I firmly believe that a flourishing Jewish identity must be based not on victimization but on celebration. This is one of the main reasons I supported the creation of Birthright Israel, which has sent more than 70,000 young Jews to Israel completely free of charge.
The guiding ethos of Birthright Israel is that we must promote and perpetuate the positive experiences of living Jewishly-the connection to one’s people, the emphasis on history and culture, and the wonders of Jewish joy. By bringing Diaspora Jews to Israel, we literally force them out of the routine of Diaspora life and immerse them in a joyous educational experience with other Jews. And what better place to instill a love of being Jewish than in the birthplace of the Jewish people?
In the age of global interconnectedness, barriers between peoples are constantly being broken down. In such an atmosphere, programs that are global and synergistic will be the most effective. The philosophy of Birthright Israel embodies this approach: Every Jew, regardless of geography, upbringing, or affiliation, is endowed with the right to discover his or her history, culture, and homeland. Even in its logistics, Birthright Israel takes the synergistic method to its fullest potential.
Birthright Israel operates on the principle that the Jewish people are a series of interlinked chains, and if we strengthen just one of these links, we strengthen the whole. At the annual Birthright Israel Mega Event in Jerusalem, thousands of Jews from all across the world gather to celebrate Jewish history, culture, and destiny together. I know of no better expression of Jewish joy than this culmination of the 10-day trip, which emphasizes celebration and unity-two quintessentially Jewish concepts that are often forgotten.
During the visit to Israel, we insist upon interconnectedness. This isn’t just a planeload of tourists. We organize mifgashim, which are interactions with Israeli peers. This reminds the Birthright participants not only that there are young Israelis quite similar to them, but also that Israel is part of a living, breathing Jewish history.
The Jewish people are living and continuing their common destiny. The practical aspects of the mifgashim are extraordinary. Today’s visitors often receive phone calls from the Israelis they have met, who now have places to stay when they visit the Diaspora. We are creating a powerful network of personal connections that reinforce the cosmic idea of one people bound together. Today, when we hear how Israeli and Diaspora Jews are diverging farther and farther apart, such a benefit is not a throwaway perk. It is an essential element of what Birthright Israel seeks to accomplish.
We are creating the infrastructure whereby Birthright alumni can interact with future participants and share their excitement about the trip. This will set in place a network of young people sharing a unique bond that will last throughout their lives. In addition, it creates a continuum in which the trip itself is not an isolated experience but part of a broad, comprehensive framework of Jewish identity formation. For this reason-to maximize the effect of the actual Israel experience-we pay close attention to pre-trip outreach and orientation and to post-trip follow-up.
Perhaps the most radical philosophy behind Birthright Israel is its method, which insists that the initial trip to Israel be a gift from the Jewish people. Indeed, the free trip is one of the most controversial aspects of Birthright Israel. Detractors argue that it is preposterous for the community to pay for “rich” kids to visit Israel. But this line of reasoning fails to appreciate the purpose of the gift. It is not merely financial.
All too often, people associate Jewish community life with obligations and quid pro quo payments. Federations and other Jewish organizations are constantly soliciting funds, seeking volunteers, and stressing the things we owe the community. This is legitimate. But, in a family, from time to time one must give a gift of love.
Birthright Israel, then, is not just a physical trip to Israel. If we realize the dream of Birthright Israel in its maximum potential, it becomes a movement that brings us back to the essential spiritual beauty of the Jews: one people, bound by a common soul and elevated by joy, love, and service to one another.
Taglit-birthright Israel provides the gift of first time, peer group, educational trips to Israel for Jewish young adults, ages 18 to 26. All Jews in this age group who have not previously traveled to Israel on a peer educational trip are eligible to apply. Applications are accepted only online at www.birthrightisrael.com.