Response to “where is the proof that Birthright works?”

This is a republication of an original article written by Josh Fixler in the Intermountain Jewish News.

I would like to respond to the January 19th editorial “Where is the proof that Birthright works”. My name is Josh Fixler; I am 19, and a freshman at the University of Maryland. I got home two weeks ago from Israel, having participated in Taglit Birthright Israel. All the Birthright representatives are very careful to refer to the trip as a “gift”, and to me it has been just that. My ten days in Israel were a gift I will never really be able to repay. This letter is as much a thank you to the Jewish communities and private philanthropists that sponsored my gift, as it is a response to your editorial. Though all I can offer is anecdotal, I feel that as a recent participant I might be able to explain the effect the trip has had on my friends and me.

Let me start by saying that there are some misunderstandings about the purpose of Taglit Birthright Israel. It is my understanding that the purpose of the trip is not necessarily to boost involvement in Hillel programs on campus, but it does. The purpose of the trip is not necessarily to get more students to participate in pro-Israel groups on campus, but they do. The purpose of the trip is not to get participants to observe new Jewish practices or marry Jews, but they probably will. The purpose of the trip, as I understand it, is to allow Jewish young adults to explore their connection to their homeland with friends and peers, an opportunity many of us would not otherwise get. On the last night of our trip, a friend explained it this way, “I have always known that I loved Israel, but until this week I could not understand why.” While I do believe that year longs study options are important, and have every intention of seeking one out, I know that they have a totally different purpose. The purpose of Birthright is merely to ignite a part of our Nishamah, our Jewish Soul, which always remains dormant in America. Birthright is the first date of a life long relationship with Israel, no matter form that may eventually take.

Birthright does not put restrictions on the goals of the trip because for each person it is such a totally unique experience, but it is equally profound. Some of us will be regular faces at Hillel now; others are planning on joining TerPAC, Maryland’s AIPAC group. Some of us are already planning our next trip, and others are, for the first time in their lives, pondering their place in Jewish history. All of these effects are equally important.

It is also crucial to note that Birthright is designed as a teaser. Some of my favorite parts of the tip were our hour-long stops in places like Ein Gedi and Tzfat, places I know that I could have spent days. The whole time I was in Israel I was building the itinerary of a future trip. I would love to go back to Tzippori National park for more than two hours, or spend a week in Tel Aviv. My next trip is almost planed; I just have to pick a date. Birthright is designed for this. We all felt as if we were given the Israel sampler platter and it has made the main course seem all that much more attractive.

It is difficult to convey how my gifts made me feel about my Judaism, but let me explain it this way. On my trip we spent a lot of time in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. There we explored the Cardo, an excavated Roman walkway that is now full of shops and restaurants. Along the way our tour guide decided to do a brief lesson, which she entitled “Jewish history in ten minutes or less”. She asked for an assistant and I volunteered. She had me stand in front of her with my arms up and to each side. She then made me into the timeline of Jewish history. My left fingertips were Abraham and Moses, my head was the year zero, my ear was the destruction of the second temple and in my right hand I held the future. For me this is what being in Israel was all about. I have a pretty good understanding of Jewish history, but I have never felt so much a part of it, so much like an iatrical link in the chain of Jewish history as I did in Israel. There, standing with my arms outstretched in front of my peers I knew what it means to be a part of Am Yisrael, the people of Israel. Birthright was my first introduction to that piece of my Jewish identity.

While I cannot prove that Birthright has as profound impact on everyone as it did on me, I can say that Israel does. I cite the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey that stated that the three things most vital to the development of Jewish youth into active Jewish adults are: “Jewish camps, youth group participation, and trips to Israel”. While day schools are important, they are not featured on this list because they do not have the same impact on the development of individual commitment as these more informal learning environments. These gifts allow us to form our own identity in a Jewish framework and context, but it a way that is individualized and empowering. Certainly it would be good to know exactly how successful Taglit Birthright is, but for a program that, as you reported, is struggling to find money, we should continue to focus on sending kids to Israel. We can count all the success stories later. Put me down as one.