Thursday August 21, 2014
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21.08.2014
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Yossi Beilin

Get on the bus

After two long and fascinating days in Jerusalem along with researchers in the fields of Jewish education and sociology who were reviewing a long list of conclusions gleaned from studies about graduates of the Taglit-Birthright Israel program (which has brought some 400,000 young Jews from around the world to Israel on the Jewish community's dime), I came to one conclusion: Follow-up programs in the Diaspora to ensure the lasting impact of Taglit on program graduates is unnecessary.

One of the criticisms flung my way while I proposed the idea to bring every Jew at a certain age (some 100,000 Diaspora Jews) to Israel for a visit over a few days, was that the trip would eventually be forgotten. There would be initial enthusiasm, but that would fade. Ever since the very first flight in 1999 brought young people to Israel, sponsored by the Israeli government and foreign donors, we tried very hard to come up with ideas for follow-up activities when the visitors returned home -- Friday night Shabbat dinners for Birthright alumni, for example -- but most of these initiatives failed.

The Masa program is an exception. It brings young people to Israel for a few months at a time to study or work within public and private enterprises. They pay out of their own pockets for different programs, which are government subsidized. The program is successful, even if the number of participants -- many of whom are Birthright alums -- is limited.

It turns out that those ten days on the bus, which transports some 50 young people along with a few IDF soldiers -- a real treat for the soldiers -- and traveling hundreds of kilometers, do the trick. The reaction is almost always positive. When the participants return home, they generally keep in touch with their new friends in Israel and abroad.

Another interesting trend is the significantly low rate of intermarriage among participants compared to the control group (young people who applied to go on the trip but, for one reason or another, never went). Professor Lenny Sachs reported that 75 percent of Birthright alums marry Jews, compared to 50% of the control group. Participants also return home with a piqued interest in matters relating to Israel and Judaism, with some of them even reaching out to their local communities for engagement. Many of them book a return-trip to Israel, to visit, study at a university, or even immigrate.

It turns out that ten days are enough time for this type of trip. The chance to meet Israelis of the same age is the most important of the program's experiences. The significance of the trip does not wane a decade later, or even more. The trip takes place at a time when young adults (ages 18-25) are developing their ideologies -- it is very intense, exciting and impossible to ignore.

Any attempt to get adults to participate in organized programs or trips, designed for the very same purpose as Taglit, would likely fail. It was for this reason we decided that Israel had to be the meeting place, for the very reason that no other location would be quite as exciting. The first visit, and despite its inherent shallowness, does its duty. The program could not be anything but surface-level, especially because of the lack of young people's knowledge vis-à-vis Judaism and Israel. It's impossible, in 10 days, no matter how intensive, to fill in all the blanks.

Even the program's main goal, according to me anyway -- Jewish continuity and a greater resilience against assimilation -- is achieved in this short period of time. The scientific data speaks for itself. Professor John Levison explains that Taglit does not create Jewish identity. Rather, it utilizes Jewish identity, making the program especially important.

Dr. Molly Brog said that Taglit, in the last few years, has become akin to a graduation ceremony for young Jews, which explains why the impact reverberates for longer than 10 days. Dr. Hagit Cohen-Wolfe talks about the communal importance of the visit. They become a kind of community, suddenly, and they want preserve that "togetherness."

Sixty thousand soldiers have participated in Taglit thus far. They join the bus-tour on the last five days of their visit, and it turns out that the trip has a very unique impact on their Jewish identities. Their knowledge of world Jewry is rather limited compared to Diaspora Jews' knowledge about Israel. Professor David Mittelberg, who studies the influence of Taglit on those soldiers who participate, concluded that the trip constitutes one of the most important Jewish events these young Israelis have ever experienced. The funding comes from the Israeli government and Jewish donors such as Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, Charles Bronfman, Michael Steinhardt, Lynn Schusterman and others, and keeps the program sustainable, though it needs a permanent fund, and not an annual budget that must met every year anew.

The IDF recognized that staffing the trip would be the icing on the cake for many soldiers. The meeting doesn't foment a perception of Israel as a military state. Rather, it sets the stage for a rare opportunity for these young people to meet their Israeli peers.

I was particular moved during a seminar by Czech citizen Anna Forkorna, who described a small Jewish community in the Czech Republic and Slovakia with no more than 7,000 people, and without Jewish day schools or Jewish organizations. When Taglit was initially offered to young Jews in the Czech Republic, many suspected that it was an underhanded attempt at brainwashing. They objected. But the temptation eventually won them over, and, in the end, the Czech students came to Israel.

The trip had a dramatic effect on the small and mostly unorganized community. Although Birthright alums did not strengthen Czech or Slovak Jewish organizations or organizational frameworks, and didn't establish alternative organizations, the trip forged a connection between the participants. Many of those on Birthright meet for the first time ever on that bus in Israel. They identified other young Jews, who haven't developed a strong relationship with their Judaism, and gave them the chance to experience this trip and exploit the opportunity being offered to them.

By traveling to Israel, these young people from the Czech Republic and Slovakia also raised awareness of their Judaism among their mostly non-Jewish communities -- non-Jews at home suddenly became aware that their peers traveling to Israel were Jewish. A large number of Taglit graduates participated in the Masa program. Jewish history interests them. Some immigrated to Israel. Before the trip, immigration wasn't even a concept.

This is the Czech-Slovak story in a nutshell. It's why I created Taglit: to alter the participants' perception of self, and to encourage the formation of Jewish couples. The bus is much more important than the trip itself. Through "togetherness," the Jewish element does its job. Post-Birthright programs are, probably, unnecessary. I think it's a better idea to invest in those ten days, and shorten the long lines of people waiting to participate.

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