It's been a nagging question -- does Birthright, the program that brings young Diaspora Jews -- early and late 20s, mainly -- to Israel for a free, 10-day trip in which they explore both their tribal lands and their Jewish identities, actually have a lasting impact, on either their level of future observance, or on their politics? There's obviously been a lot of talk lately about the growing distance between Israel and young American Jews in particular -- Peter Beinart wrote a whole book on this, in fact. A new study, carried out by the sociologist Steven M. Cohen on behalf of the the left-leaning Workmen's Circle, found that youngest cohort of American Jews -- those in the 25-34 age range -- feel closer to Israel than Jews between the ages of 35-44. Cohen ascribes this higher level of attachment among younger Jews to participation in Birthright.
Prime Minister Netanyahu should not take personal solace from this, however, because Cohen found that "these strengthened links to Israel have not yielded any greater support for Israel's policies towards the Palestinians." Still, the numbers are quite interesting:
New data released on Monday from the findings of a poll that was partially publicized two weeks ago, shows that the "Attached to Israel Index" for under-35 non-Orthodox Jews was 39, while for Jews aged 35-44 it was only 29. For Jews over the age of 45 the Index went up gradually from 40 to 44.
As the poll did not discover any correlation between the growth in the attachment to Israel and greater engagement with the Jewish community, such as attending a synagogue, Cohen and his colleagues ascribe the attachment phenomena to what they describe as "the Birthright Bump."
I asked Adam Chandler, Goldblog's in-house Birthright expert (he actually led a trip in 2008 of 40 or so twentyish Jewish-Americans) if these results correspond to his own experiences. This is what he said:
"The rise in attachment to Israel isn't surprising, given the nature of a Birthright trip: a free whirlwind jaunt to a foreign country where an ostensibly latent spiritual link is coaxed out by a carefully constructed itinerary. It works. There's a lot of conversation (and foreplay disguised as conversation) as well as some short, but meaningful exchanges with Israeli soldiers whose young lives present a sharp contrast to the lives of Birthright participants. More often than not, there's some alcohol too.
Some participants who've never asked certain questions of themselves--about their religious identity, about the generational task of Jewish continuity, or about their feelings regarding the Jewish state--suddenly find themselves making these inquiries and perhaps later attribute this weighty act of self-interrogation to their sojourn in Israel. Or they just get drunk a lot and make some new friends.
The problem is that a ten-day trip leaves some important things out. Ideally, a young Jewish person's relationship with Israel should be informed by things that can't be gathered from the windows of a tour bus. He or she should come to really know a few Israelis and see how tough they have it and better understand how difficult they can be. Likewise, ventures should be made to meet Palestinians so the implications of Zionism can be understood and its future wisely fashioned. It's a pretty tall order for ten days. It's a tall order for ten years."