Imagine that you are Irish. One day you read in the newspaper that anyone of Irish descent can go to Ireland for two weeks, tour all around the country, stay in deluxe accommodations, meet with Irish citizens, and learn a lot more about their Irish roots. Then at the bottom of the newspaper ad it lists the price as $100. That's all. One hundred bucks for all of the above.
Must be a joke, right?
You look into it, and it turns out two Irish philanthropists donated a ton of money to bring people of Irish decent back to Ireland.
Can you believe that anyone would offer such a thing, just so some people of Irish decent can get a taste of the home country? Well it's no joke. In fact the offer is even better than this. Two Jewish philanthropists are funding the Birthright program which allows 18-to 26-year-olds go to Israel, for 10 days to two weeks, for even less than $100. It's for free.
Young Jewish men and women are able to travel around Israel, meet with Israelis and explore their heritage because two committed philanthropists decided that it was important for them to get in touch with their home country and their roots.
I was recently a counselor on one such Birthright trip that was hosted by Aish HaTorah's Jerusalem Fellowships program. It included 28 young Jewish men and women from the United States and Canada. At the beginning of the two-week program one of the female participants asked me what I wanted her to get out of the program. I told her, "I hope that at the very least this program makes you excited about being Jewish." That was really all I did want. Being excited about being Jewish is a lofty goal these days for college aged people. We live in a time where activism and excitement about much of anything is very limited, let alone excitement about being Jewish.
For most of my life, being Jewish didn't mean much.
I graduated from college a year ago. I went to a school with over 5,000 Jews, but there were very few people that I encountered during my time in college that I would describe as being excited about being Jewish. Being Jewish didn't really mean anything and the idea that we would marry a Jew was never discussed. You dated who you dated. You married who you married.
Participation in the Hillel house was non-existent. It seemed to always attract the same core group of 30 people. For a school that has 5,000 Jews, that means only 0.6% of the Jews on my campus were involved in Jewish activities. That's point-six percent, not 6 percent!
Birthright couldn't have come at a better time. I think it is changing the way that 18-26 year olds look at themselves, their religion, and how they want to live their lives.
I recently met for coffee with a friend from high school who is currently participating in a post-college program for the year in Israel. He went on the Birthright program in December of 1999 and told me the following,
"When I was in college I could have cared less that I was Jewish. I had always been around Jews – my whole high school was Jewish. When I went to college I purposely choose a school with a small Jewish population because I was sick of being around the same people. For three and a half years, it didn't matter to me that I dated non-Jewish girls and only had non-Jewish friends.
"When I went to Israel on Birthright, the way I looked at things changed. Coming to Israel and learning more about why being Jewish was special really changed my view of myself and my life. A year ago I would have never believed that I would be on a program like this – or be wanting to marry a Jewish girl – my whole perspective on my life and on Judaism changed because of Birthright."
I think that the feelings of my friend are the same for many young people. We are disenchanted with the cultural Judaism – the lox and bagels, the Seinfeld characters, the attainment of physical possessions which are then negatively associated with Jewish people – from watches and cars, to certain clothes and jewelry.
For my friend, who is now here living in Israel for the year and who intends on dating only Jewish women, and for the 28 participants on the Jerusalem Fellowships Birthright program where I was just a counselor, I think Birthright did the trick. There are 29 more young Jewish people who are now excited about being Jewish. Back home maybe they'll go to Hillel, maybe they will also choose to come back after graduation, or maybe they will just decide that marrying a Jew is important. Whichever route they go, I can say from firsthand experience that bringing students to Israel is a giant step in the right direction for Jews to become excited about being Jewish.
birthright israel programs, visit www.goisrael.org