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Tablet Is Going to Israel

Birthright Israel will take 40,000 young Jews on a free trip to the Jewish state this year. We’re joining them.

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Interior shot of a Taglit-Birthright bus. (Courtesy Birthright Israel)

Here is what it means to celebrate your bar mitzvah if you are Taglit-Birthright, the organization that provides free tours of Israel to young Jews from around the world. It means going from an annual budget of roughly $15 million in 1999, the first year in which Birthright operated trips, to one of $119 million—$34 million of which is provided by the Israeli government. It means going from 2,000 private donors to 25,000. It means going from bringing 10,000 Jews aged 18 to 26 to bringing somewhere in the neighborhood of 40,000 this year.

“This is the best age for anybody to decide on his or her future,” Gidi Mark, Birthright’s CEO, explains of that magical 18-to-26 gap. “Here is the ‘wilderness’—you ask yourself where you go. You’re looking for answers. And Israel is an option—not the only option, but a relevant option.”

The bold-faced names of the Jewish philanthropic world—Charles Bronfman, Michael Steinhardt, Sheldon Adelson, Lynn Schusterman—believe it’s more than relevant. They’ve bet their money—more than $60 million just this year comes from private donors in North America—on the proposition that 10 days in Israel, crammed on a bus with dozens of other young Jews with all expenses paid (including the flights there and back), is an effective stop-gap measure for what many see as a crisis of Jewish continuity in the Diaspora.

With their support, Birthright is celebrating its bar mitzvah year by thinking even bigger: By 2013, it aims to bring 51,000 Jews—more than half of the roughly 100,000 born every year (including Israelis)—to Israel. And it aims to make that figure a new plateau, so that it can look back from 2022 and know that a majority of eligible Jews have participated.

Ultimately, Birthright’s most notable achievement might be that it has achieved the status of household name—at least among American Jewish households. Jews from nearly 60 countries have gone to Israel through Birthright, but this year, approximately 70 percent of them will be from the United States. If you’re an American Jew, there’s a good chance you, your son, your granddaughter, your nephew, your cousin, or your best friend has gone on Birthright.

But what really goes down during those 10 days? Left-wing articles criticize the program for indoctrinating participants with a right-wing political agenda; participants offer unreliable anecdotes of hookups and hangovers.

On Monday, we (we are senior editor Bari Weiss and staff writer Marc Tracy), along with a few other Tablet Magazine staffers and 38 Jews will fly from Newark to Tel Aviv and begin our Birthright trip. Like every other Birthright participant, we’re traveling on Birthright’s dime. We hope our trip will be like every other Birthright trip except for the fact that we’ll be blogging it every step of the way.

We’re calling it the Roll, and as our bus churns along we’ll be bringing you updates on what we are told at the top of Masada, in the shadow of the Western Wall, and at the Lebanese border; profiling the American participants and the Israeli soldiers who join us; and telling stories about what goes on after the sun sets.

Quite apart from our daily commentary about Israeli politics—about the peace process; the crisis with Iran; the increasing role of Haredi and Russian political parties; etcetera, etcetera, etcetera—Birthright is a story in and of itself. And we intend to cover it in a way it literally never has been covered before.

There are a couple of things we’ll be looking for. First: Is it fun? It seems hard to believe it won’t be. Among other things, we’ll float in the Dead Sea, spend a night in a Bedouin tent in the desert, and go to Tel Aviv. Our trip is a so-called “Extreme” trip—there’s apparently a lot of hiking—so we’re even looking forward to treating Shabbat as the day of rest it is commanded to be (among other things, we will be at the Kotel at sundown Friday). “We believe that you can give education, information, and still be fun,” says Mark, a tall, fit man with only some gray in that trademark close Israeli haircut. “That brings images of Jews who ‘suffered’ for so many years on Sunday school. And you ask why it is so successful? This is the first answer.”

Second: What are the soldiers like? Central to any Birthright trip, according to Mark, is the Mifgash, the encounter with Israeli soldiers our age, who will greet us in uniform and spend their remaining five days out of it. For Mark, the Mifgash is at least as important for the Israelis, many of whom possess as much experience—little to none—with Diaspora Jews as Diaspora Jews have with Israelis. “Our trips are about building a Jewish community,” he argues.

Third: What’s the political bent? In a Nation article last year, journalist Kiera Feldman reported that Birthright had initially been the brainchild of left-wing Zionists like Yossi Beilin concerned with intermarriage statistics (an infamous 1990 study that Mark also cited found that the majority of American Jews intermarried). However, Feldman argued, right-wing funders have altered the group’s mission. “What began as an identity booster,” she wrote, “has become an ideology machine, pumping out not only Jewish baby-makers but defenders of Israel. Or that’s the hope.”

But the only change Mark identifies is the Israeli government’s approach: from wanting—20 and 30 years ago, from various Birthright precursors—more Israelis to wanting more Jews who identify with Israel. As for politics? “There is a political agenda in the sense that we try to connect you to where your people came from and show you where the Jewish people came from. We are not shy about the fact that the Jews have the right to a state like every other people,” Mark says. “But we try to give right and left. There are sometimes speakers from the left, and [tour educators] have instructions to balance it before or after, or vice versa. If you have someone from the Likud, the tour educator is instructed to say, ‘Look, this person is 1 2 3, and in Israel there is also 4 5 6.’ ”

He adds: “You cannot brainwash people who are intelligent.” Reading our dispatches, you, dear reader, will get to be the judge of that.

Fourth: What really goes on? Is everything on the trip kosher? (We’ll abandon euphemism for a moment and refer you to this Vice article, “I Gave a Handjob at Jew Camp.”) Birthright’s policy about what goes on after the day is done is half “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and half “Don’t.” Says Mark: “We cannot control each one of our participants. We trust their good intentions.” At the same time, while visiting Birthright’s U.S. headquarters a couple blocks from the Empire State Building, one of us saw one of its original recruitment posters. Above a photograph of a short, Semitic-looking boy, basketball in hand, dwarfed by two taller teammates on either side, it reads, “Sometimes it’s hard being Jewish.” The second photograph shows a different Jewish boy, this time flanked by two Jewish girls, around whom he has his arms. Caption: “Sometimes it isn’t.” This is the aspect of the trip, the part where you put your arm around your fellow participants (or if you’re really lucky, a soldier), that is perhaps the most tantalizing for many of the trip-goers currently packing their bags—and, if you follow the narrative to the end, it ultimately may be right in line with both the goals of Birthright’s funders and God’s promise that Abraham’s descendants shall equal the number of stars in the sky.

On our blog, the Roll, you’ll get to hear it all. We’ll be back Monday from the airport.


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yevka says:

Gosh, sounds peachy keen.

Every time I read about Birthright, I kick myself that I didn’t go on one when I was in college. Instead,  I went home and worked… then I graduated from college and went right to work, engaged at 23, married at 24, homeowner at 25, mom at 27. Wish there was Birthright for us Gen Y’rs/Millenials…

Jojo Lolo says:

“By 2013, it aims to bring 51,000 Jews—more than half of the roughly 100,000 born every year (including Israelis)—to Israel.”

Considering that last year over 120,000 Jewish babies were born in Israel, I doubt this number “includes Israelis”.
And the real number for the Diaspora is below 80,000.

i love the comment that you cannot brainwash intelligent people. it sure sounds good. but is stupid, false, and blind. plenty of americans were brainwashed, through lies and endless media complicity, into supporting  the wars in vietnam, iraq, grenada, etc. germans supporting the nazis. israelis supporting the settlement enterprise. etc etc. one thing is very certain. the birthright trips like any other super duper “mission” are nothing but propaganda and brainwashing. all one needs to do is to look at the proposed itinerary of any of these trips to see that you/they aren’t interested in the truth. but in compliant young american jews who when they hit 40 will open up their wallets while keeping their minds and eyes closed tightly….

Sheldon Adelson? Isn’t this the same Sheldon Adelson, the gambling mogul and and pro-settler fanatic who bankrolled the Gingrich super PAC Winning Our Future, and is also the money behind the Clarion Fund and its notorious anti-Muslim film “The Third Jihad”? I’m sorry, but I expect more transparency from Tablet. 

    and if the koch brothers were jewish, they too would be funding this program. the devil as usual is in the details. if birthright (and tablet) were all about transparency, small details like adelson’s politics and his politics would surely be disclosed. believe me if george soros had anything at all to do with this series of busrides through potemkin villages, israeli style, we’d have heard about it already…

brian2907 says:

We know that many of the participants are not Zionists and are going for a ‘freebie’ vacation and a good time. BUT many, if not most of them, will suddenly experience a feeling they cannot explain, an atavistic pull to this land that transcends logic. It may be when they are at the Kotel or visiting a site where Jews fought the might of Rome 2,000 years ago or where Deborah fought the Canaanites a millenium before that. They may not make aliyah but neither will they be silent when the nations of the world pour vitriol on Israel. Nor will they join those Jews at the forefront of the Israel-bashers to show that they are ‘good’ Jews, not like those nasty Zionistic ones. For these, it will have been worth it.

karenlt says:

Tablet writers – please don’t take these cynical comments as being representative of the American Jewish community. I’ve heard of many young people who’ve loved their Birthright experience and many more who are eager to go, including my niece and nephew. Would the critics only be happy if young Jews went on a tour sponsored by a pro-Palestinian group? What is wrong with instilling a love of Israel? They hear plenty of negativity about Israel; this is a chance to set the record straight. And it sounds as if the program makes an effort to provide a range of views.

I’ll be looking forward to hearing your reporting on the trip.

sufficient time must be set aside for drinking, hooking up and the like. all under the guise of “hakshara”; building those “kesharim” so necessary for our truth seeking youth….

And your problem with the jewlicious article is, what exactly?

yevka says:

Who needs transparency when a coach full of credulous kids are going on a fun filled field trip and summer vacation on an influence peddling billionaire’s dime for a good ‘ol time?

mouskatel says:

Well indeed, who does? It’s called private legal commerce. Look it up.

So, Peter Beinhart is now the standard for Birthright?


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Tablet Is Going to Israel

Birthright Israel will take 40,000 young Jews on a free trip to the Jewish state this year. We’re joining them.

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