Birthright Israel strives to keep spirits high after trips

JERUSALEM — Until pyrotechnics, laser light shows and boisterous standing ovations become routine accompaniments for Israeli political speeches, Moshe Katsav will never be treated more like Mick Jagger in his life.

The Israeli president got a rock star's welcome last month during his speech at Birthright Israel's "Mega-Event." Cheering, dancing and even crowd-surfing prevailed as Katsav — in noticeably limited English — congratulated the young adults for coming to Israel and urged them to make aliyah.

A few days later at the next Mega-Event, the crowd's reaction to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was even more raucous. The students heartily cheered his every word. One young man who'd negotiated the throng of well-wishers and very visible security to shake the premier's hand, then shouted, "I'll never wash this hand again! I'll never ever wash this hand again!"

Clearly, as Birthright organizers put it, the students were infused with "a lot of ruach," or spirit. But years later, will the experience have made a difference?

Birthright benefactors say yes — and claim they've got the statistics to prove it. To date, Birthright travelers number more than 28,000 Jewish men and women between the ages of 18 and 26.

A recently published study indicates that taking a Birthright trip to Israel raises and then maintains participants' Jewish identity, connection to the Jewish people and connection to Israel to levels higher than those expressed by a sampling of non-participants.

The study by the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University queried participants (all from the Birthright applicant pool), by e-mail. Among the findings:

*Before a trip, 38 percent of participants said they felt "very much" of a connection to the Jewish people. Three months after the trip, that figure was up to 64 percent and one year after the trip, 65 percent. By contrast, only 47 percent of non-participants said they felt "very much" connected to the Jewish people a year later.

*Before a trip, 22 percent of participants expressed "very much" of a connection to Israel. Three months after the trip the percentage was up to 55 percent and it stood at 48 percent a year after the trip. Meanwhile, 28 percent of non-participants expressed "very much" of a connection to Israel when asked a year later.

It may be worth noting, however, that while several thousand participants responded, only a few hundred non-participants did so.

Nonetheless, Birthright Israel co-founder Charles Bronfman hopes statistics like those in the Brandeis study will help him cement funding for his 3-year-old program. "My first goal is to get permanent financing," he said last month at a press conference in Jerusalem. "It'll be paid for by Jewish communities, and people will come on trips forever."

Birthright Israel's five-year price tag totals roughly $210 million. The cost is split three ways among the Israeli government, Jewish communities worldwide and a group of 14 international philanthropists (including Bronfman).

Hoping to put a human face on the statistics, Bronfman introduced a "success story" to a group of journalists — 20-year-old U.C. Berkeley student David Nusbaum.

Nusbaum, a past Birthright traveler, was in the midst of a year studying abroad at Jerusalem's Hebrew University — a move he said he'd never have made if it weren't for his Birthright trip. "I was nervous about moving here [a] year with no family and no connections," he said. "Birthright soothed those concerns."

The trip also convinced him to become more of a pro-Israel advocate on campus.

"At home, Jews on campus are almost forced to defend Israel. After the first Birthright trip came back my freshman year, there were immediately more people who felt it was important to defend Israel," said Nusbaum. "People say Israel is apartheid and racist, and we stepped up and said, 'No, Israel is a democratic country and wants the best for all people in the region.'"

On the other hand, many Birthright students who are genuinely affected by the program return home and do not know how or where they can express their newfound connections to Israel or Judaism.

Daniel Zaghi, a San Jose resident and U.C. Davis graduate, said the trip inspired him religiously and made him feel he should become more of a Zionist — and, perhaps, he might even make aliyah. On the other hand, he had no idea what he would do to put his convictions into action when he got home.

Bruce Yudewitz, the Greater Miami Jewish Federation's director of community planning who was in Israel to observe the Birthright tour at the behest of the United Jewish Communities, said reaching out to Birthright travelers — and young people in general — "is part of the challenge for…synagogues, Jewish community centers, young adult programs, AIPAC.

"Communities often presuppose what people want. But we need to learn what young people want and provide the opportunities to learn within a Jewish context."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.