Rav Bar Oz* (From Strength to Strength)
Learning a Lesson from Birthright Israel
by Rabbi Jeremy Barras
A study was conducted years ago by scholars at Brandeis University to assess the success of the Birthright Israel program. Over the last decade of leading trips to Israel every summer, I have had a fair bit of contact with Birthright groups. Their groups are generally found at tourist sites where our synagogue groups travel as well. I have had a chance to speak with some of the participants and to witness some of their conversations and experiences.
On one trip I was preparing to lead our group on a hike at the entrance of Ein Gedi, the lush desert oasis adjacent to Masada and the Dead Sea. As our group was buying popsicles and applying sunscreen, I sat down near where two Birthright participants were conversing. One was a young man from somewhere in the US; the other was a female Israeli soldier who was accompanying his group. She noticed that he had a tattoo, and jokingly chided him for doing something that Jewish boys should not do. He then told her, to her shock, that of the 50 young American Jews on his bus, 49 of them had tattoos.
On a different trip, I was with my group preparing to welcome Shabbat on Friday evening at the Western Wall. The plaza was humming with Jews from all over the world preparing for Shabbat and excited to be in Jerusalem. I walked by a Birthright group which was arranged in a circle. Their leaders were attempting to provide them with an authentic Shabbat experience, and as I walked by, they were attempting to lead the participants in Oseh Shalom. What I noticed around the group was that not only was no one singing, literally not one of them knew the words to Oseh Shalom.
I have many stories like this, but from just these two, it is clear that there are so many Jews who do not possess a basic Jewish education and know little more than that they are Jewish. So why do these Jews sign up for these trips? According to the Brandeis study, when asked why they joined a Birthright trip, common answers included such responses as: they are intrigued by the free trip, the partying, the opportunity to meet other Jewish singles and because it seems like a fun way to spend 10 days on someone else’s dime. However, after returning from the trip, the same participants were asked to identify the highlights of their trip. They responded: Shabbat in Jerusalem, the Western Wall, Masada and Yad Vashem.
What the study concluded from this research was that while Jews may not be readily cognizant of it, what they are really looking for are peak Jewish experiences. They want to have experiences that connect them with their culture, that are spiritual and that unite them with something more meaningful and bigger than themselves. I believe this is what we are all after, and that is why we are urging you so strongly to form a Beth Am Chavurah, to grab hold of our checklist and to start making peak Jewish experiences part of your calendar. Our tradition is here for your taking. Our community is chock full of peak Jewish experiences, and we are waiting for you to make it part of your routine. The research shows it is what all of us truly desire!
* The Barras family name was created during the Ellis Island Experience. Originally it was Bar Oz, meaning strength in Hebrew.