JERUSALEM — One anecdote relaying Israel's transformative power on a young Jew's identity might not convince you. But with 100,000 under its belt, Taglit-Birthright Israel appears to be a proven formula.
Launched in 2000 as a five-year pilot program funded by world Jewish communities, the Israeli government and 14 philanthropists, the organization that brings 18- to 26-year-old Diaspora Jews on a free, educational peer trip to Israel marked the occasion of its 100,000th participant this month.
The numbers reflect a critical mass of young people whose Jewish identity was spawned or emboldened by this venture. Twenty-something after twenty-something report a profound, personal awakening, resulting in a deepened attachment to Israel and the Jewish people.
Take, for example, Lauren Perzov, from Chicago.
Like many other Birthrighters, the 20-year-old junior at the University of Illinois, enrolled after hearing dazzling stories about the trip from friends who participated.
"They all had amazing, life-changing experiences," she said.
Perzov, who says she never felt a strong sense of Jewish identity, craved a "feeling of belonging and attraction to the Jewish community."
Only a few days into the trip, she said she was inspired by Israel's history and love for the Jewish state by Israelis and her American tour organizers. And on returning home, she wants to elevate the Jewish presence in her life – by attending services more regularly, volunteering for Israel-related organizations and encouraging others to enroll in Birthright.
By the end of this summer, Birthright will mark its biggest year to date, bringing more than 22,000 to Israel, including Stephanie Lowenthal, a 26-year-old Manhattan professional, who arrived in Israel last week as the 100,000th participant.
Lowenthal attended this week's "mega" event, which brought together more than 7,000 fellow participants in the country for a celebration and ceremony with philanthropists and government officials. By summer's end, Taglit-Birthright Israel will have brought more than 110,000 participants from 50 countries in just six years.
"We have reached a remarkable milestone in the history of Jewish programming," says Michael Steinhardt, co-founder of Birthright Israel. "These young Jews have accepted an opportunity to explore Israel – the heart of Jewish culture, history and its people. This unforgettable gift strengthens the bond between Israel and Jews from around the world, as well as illuminates the ever-evolving Jewish identity."
Birthright Israel is a partnership among United Jewish Communities and local Jewish federations, the Israeli Government and private philanthropists.
But Birthright Israel is not only making an impact on the Diaspora.
It's been a terrific boon for Israel.
The program has generated more than $182 million in revenue to the Jewish state.
The following calculus shows the extent of Birthright's impact on Israel's economy: Birthright groups have spent $7.3 million on tour buses, $17 million in cafes, nearly $5 million in entrance fees to tourist sites and $27.6 million in personal purchases.
For all these benefits, the program is widely considered a win-win.
But there are problems centered on supply and demand. The program's popularity has brought with it a massive waiting list, and 15,000 applicants were turned away this summer, when a record number of 25,000 applied for 12,000 spots.
The three-way funding partnership behind Birthright remains in tact, with the Jewish Agency for Israel adding new funds to the program and the Israeli government increasing its allocation to $20 million. In an effort to seek new funds, Birthright Israel has established a foundation to draw smaller donations.
But Birthright's backers don't want to lose momentum or potential when the program has been shown to bolster the identity of so many young Jews.
New research released this week on Birthright participants show that when compared with applicants who did not go on a trip, Birthright alumni have a stronger connection to Israel, the Jewish people and their Jewish identity, are more likely to want to marry and to raise their children Jewishly, evince a greater understanding of Israeli society and history, and are more directly involved in Jewish activities on their college campuses.
"Like earlier studies, the findings are dramatic in the extent to which they suggest near-universal positive evaluations," according to Leonard Saxe, the principal author of the report from Brandeis University's Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.
Alumni have "strongly favorable feelings about the Birthright Israel experience and these reviews are just as unequivocally positive for those who were participants more than three years ago as for participants last summer," the report says. "Furthermore, participants are unequivocal in regarding the Birthright Israel experience as both enabling them to connect to the Jewish people, and catalyzing their individual Jewish journeys. It was 'fun,' but it was also meaningful," says the report co-written by Saxe, Ted Sasson and Shahar Hecht.
The findings are based on recent surveys and interviews with nearly 3,000 participants and nearly 1,000 applicants to the program who did not participate (all North Americans) between 2002-2005.
Although the effects were positive across each of the key program goals – Jewish identity, Peoplehood, and Connections with Israel – the impact on views of Israel were most striking. For example, across three groups of participants from 2002-2005, from 61 percent to 71 percent of Birthright alumni felt a very strong connection to Israel, compared to 39 percent to 43 percent of non-participants. The findings regarding the long-term impact of the trip are also striking, for example, with 41 percent of university students from the 2002 trips participating in Hillel activities compared to one percent of non-participants from the same year.
And today, the program continues to inspire, one participant at a time.
Josh Sellers, 23, of Cherry Hill, N.J. just graduated Fairleigh-Dickinson University and works in his family's retail business.
"You read about the wall, you read about the desert, you read about the, food, the culture," but "it doesn't hit you until you actually get there." For Sellers, images drove home Israel's impact – for example, "seeing the group of men huddled around the wall" with their heads covered in tallit in fervent prayer.
Additionally, he thinks he has made friendships to last a lifetime.
"I want to bring a piece of Israel back home with me," he says. He'll do that by remembering to keep the religious rituals his family has practiced.
Nothing to Hold Him Back
Gary Weintraub, 20, of Havertown is a junior at the University of Michigan.
Weintraub attended Birthright's "March of the Living" tour. He says one cannot truly realize Israel's meaning until experiencing Poland.
"Would we ever have Israel today if it wasn't for the Holocaust?"
Making this trip with peers helps create the "opportunity to establish a personal connection with the State of Israel." Surrounded by one's peers, there is nothing to "hold you back" from "expressing what you really feel."
Another perspective came from an immigrant from Israel.
"When I go back, it's going to change my life and my whole view about Israel," said Tal Meisson a sophomore at Penn State University. Meisson was born in Israel, but has not returned since she was a toddler. After seeing Israelis pride in their country, she says she will feel more pride in her heritage.
Todd Sharofsky, 19, of Cherry Hill attends Camden County College in Blackwood, N.J.
"I first heard about Birthright through my parents and my sister, and I thought it would be a great experience to be able to go to Israel," said Sharofsky, "especially for free because that's even better."
But Birthright has touched him profoundly.
"Nothing could ever change the fact that I went to Israel for the first time with Birthright, and as I told the entire group the other night, in my entire life I've never been accepted by so many people so fast, and I just felt it was really cool the way 39 other students my age and older and also staff just accepted me with open arms." The experience, he said, has taken him "above and beyond anything [he] could ever imagine."