No, travel experience shapes tomorrows Jewish leaders

Anyone who has been on a college campus in the last seven years understands the power and the value of the Taglit-Birthright Israel program. The program has transformed the lives of tens of thousands of students and, in the process, has changed the nature of Jewish life on campus.

Birthright Israel encourages campuses’ “hidden Jews” — the young people who would not be caught dead at a Jewish activity — to come into the open and to participate in a community setting. It has helped overcome the alienation some students feel toward the organized Jewish community, sending the message that the Jewish community cares about them, no strings attached.

The program has excited young people about their Jewish identity in a way that has eluded other Jewish groups on campus. Hillel routinely receives applications for two or three times the number of slots available for the program.

Today, Jewish students do not look alike, talk alike or share a common history. In our experience, the Birthright Israel experience appeals to students of all backgrounds — from yeshiva students to those with no Jewish education. It also cuts across classes, enabling those of modest means to visit their homeland. Regardless of background or class, Birthright Israel touches each participant in a different but profound way.

After all, Israel is not just another tourist destination but a vibrant Jewish society that is as ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse as our students. It is a place where, for the first time in their lives, Jewish students of all kinds truly feel at home.

As one who has accompanied numerous Birthright Israel groups to Israel, I have seen how young people with little or no Jewish education have celebrated their bar/bat mitzvah in Israel or adopted a Hebrew name at a Shabbat service. They returned to campus more committed to a Jewish future than ever before. At the other end of the spectrum, I have seen how young people with a strong Jewish background have experienced Israel for the first time, putting into context the history and prayers they have spent a lifetime learning.

At a time when Israel has been under fire on campuses around the globe, Birthright Israel has exposed 100,000 young people to the reality of Israel, not the caricatures disseminated by her enemies. Although advocacy is not the primary purpose of the trip, Birthright Israel has given tens of thousands of young people a strong emotional attachment to the Jewish state.

Alumni of the trip regularly swell the ranks of Hillel upon their return and a surprising number become Jewish communal professionals. The young people who are selected for the program are grateful for the gift they have received, the gift of their Jewish identity.

Birthright Israel is not a cure-all for Jewish identity. One cannot absorb the wealth of Jewish civilization in a 10-day trip. However, this experience provides an impetus for continued exploration of their identity. The Jewish community must follow up with these young people and provide them with meaningful Jewish experiences that build on their trips.

It would be wonderful if the Jewish community could provide every Jewish student with a strong Jewish education, whether in day schools or in excellent supplemental schools. In the absence of that, Birthright Israel provides an infusion of Jewish identity that motivates students to continue exploring their Jewish identity at a critical moment of their lives. This remarkable gift from the Jewish people has opened hearts, minds and souls.

Jeff Rubin is associate vice president of communications of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.