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To Rebuild Religious Identity, Free Trips To Israel For American Jewish Youth

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
November-December 1998

A group of American Jewish philanthropists, led by Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman, have announced the’ creation of "Birthright Israel," a $300 million fund that will totally support first-time travel to Israel by Jews age 15 to 26 on existing accredited programs. The Washington Jewish Week (Nov. 19, 1998) reports that, "The plan’s organizers hope to enlist local federations and communities worldwide in joining the coalition of philanthropists...and the government of Israel is providing $1 million for each of five years beginning in January 1999."  

The New York Times (Nov. 16, 1998) described the plan as "an attempt to rebuild religious identity among young Jews, who are marrying non-Jews and abandoning the faith in large numbers...The program’s backers concede that they cannot estimate how many will take part, whether they can actually raise their target of $300 million, or how they will determine who is eligible to travel—a knotty question that reopens the whole controversy over ‘who is a Jew.’ The assumption behind Birthright Israel is that even a spring break spent in Israel can form a connection to Judaism for young people who have little or no affiliation with a synagogue or other Jewish institutions. The program is also an effort to mend the fraying ties among Jews. Trips to Israel could also be a means of consolidating support for the Jewish state."  

Michael Steinhardt, a Wall Street money manager, said that Israel "is the cement that can bind the Jewish community together. It is my hope that over time, 10 or 15 years perhaps, the Birthright trip can develop into a tradition analogous to that of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Our hope is that a trip to Israel will be another rite of passage of Jewish life."  

Mr. Steinhardt, an atheist, said that, "Israel has frankly—through my life and for much of my life—been a substitute for theology. I have lived an important part of my Jewishness through association with Israel rather than through adherence to a religious law and substantial observance."  

The idea for Birthright originated with Yossi Beilin, a former Cabinet minister and a member of the Israeli parliament.  

Israelis are enthusiastic about a plan to tie Diaspora Jews to Israel. The Jerusalem Post (Nov. 2, 1998) declared that, "The best possible investment in the future of Judaism is the implementation of the plan to grant every Jewish boy and girl an all-expense paid, three-week trip to Israel."  

Many have expressed skepticism about the utility of such a program. Steven Bayme, National Director for Jewish Communal Affairs of the American Jewish Committee, said: "I think six-week-trips, ten-day trips are very nice—no harm is being done. But I don’t think the faith that is being placed in these kinds of programs is justified. The Jewish community is looking for a silver bullet when there are no magic solutions."  

In recent years, ties to Israel have been waning among American Jews. A recent study conducted by Hebrew University sociologist Steven Cohen found that while faith in God, ritual observance and religious commitment appear to be stable, only 20% of those surveyed think it is essential to support Israel. Visiting Israel at least once is considered essential to being a good Jew by only 18%. "Israel attachment" by Jews 55 and older was 46%; among those 25-34 it dropped to 23%. Steve Doochin, a United Jewish Appeal fund-raiser from New York, told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz that, "Israel has not been on our agenda of late. Israel is just not on the fund-raising screen for a lot of the donors I have."  

Discussing the 67th General Assembly of the UJA Federations of North America held in Israel, Douglas Bloomfield, writing in The Jewish Week (Nov. 26, 1998) declared that the big story was "the growing gap between Diaspora Jewry and Israel...the drift of American Jews away from activism in behalf of Israel dominated the General Assembly."

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