NEWS FEATURE: Israel Trips Aim to Boost Jewish Identity Among the Young

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c. 2000 Religion News Service

JERUSALEM _ Before Laura Bachman-Streitfield came to Israel, she couldn’t decide if she was a Jew or a Christian.

Her own parents have mixed Jewish-Christian backgrounds and they exposed their daughter to both religious traditions, letting her choose for herself. Mostly, Bachman-Streitfield chose confusion over what should be her real identity.

But standing atop the legendary desert mountain fortress of Masada, where Jewish warriors threw themselves to their deaths in 73 A.D. rather than surrender to the Roman legions, Bachman-Streitfield finally cast her lot. Uttering Hebrew prayers and biblical passages, the 19-year-old student at Muhlenberg College, Pa., celebrated an impromptu bat mitzvah, signaling a Jewish female’s entrance into adulthood.

“This was the first time I was able to feel like a Jew,” said Bachman-Streitfield, brought to Israel for the first time in January on an ambitious new program known as “Birthright.”

The program, co-sponsored by the Israeli government and a group of wealthy Jewish philanthropists, is designed to reinforce the identity of young, unaffiliated Jews around the world in an era when many Jewish communities outside Israel are shrinking due to assimilation and intermarriage.

“The research has shown that a visit to Israel can have one of the biggest impacts on Jewish young adults and students in terms of strengthening their identity and commitment to Jewish life,” says Gidi Mark, chief operating officer of the Birthright Israel International program, based in Jerusalem.

While the program is a worldwide effort, it is clear the 6 million U.S. and Canadian Jews, who make up about 75 percent of the world’s diaspora, are the biggest target audience.

For years, Jewish educators and activists have been groping with ways to combat the slow decline of many American Jewish communities. Some 50 percent of U.S. Jews marry non-Jews today, and most of their offspring don’t identify overtly with the Jewish community.

Only about 1,200 out of an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 college-age North American Jews now visit Israel every year, a rate many times lower than young Jews in Europe or South America.

The Birthright program aims to sharply increase that number, bringing some 80,000 to 90,000 young American Jews here over the coming four years. It also hopes to bring another 30,000 from Jewish communities as far flung as India and Uruguay. Anyone who identifies as a Jew and is recognized as a Jew by one of the major Jewish streams is eligible even if he or she comes from a mixed religious background.

Labor Party politician Yossi Beilin, now justice minister, conceived of the Birthright plan several years ago and sold the idea to Wall Street financier Michael Steinhardt as a way to combat Jewish alienation among youth.

Steinhardt won the support of Charles and Edgar Bronfman, co-chairmen of the Seagram Company. They in turn recruited pledges of $5 million each from more than a dozen major Jewish philanthropists as well as a promise of $70 million in support from the Israeli government. Another $70 million is yet to be raised from Jewish communities around the world.

When it was formally launched last month, the $210 million Birthright program drew criticism that the 10-day trip is merely a free pleasure ride to Israel for young Jews who could, if they chose, probably afford to pay the $1,500 to $2,000 it costs to visit Israel.

Some Israeli politicians, including Naomi Blumenthal, a Likud member of the Knesset, complained that Israel has no business paying for visits by American Jewish college students when the government can’t afford to fund school enrichment programs in poor Israeli towns.

But the criticism has eased as the first wave of some 5,000 Birthright participants completed a tour of Israel in late January.

The program organizers _ from the Birthright offices up to the Bronfmans and Steinhardt _ were literally deluged with hundreds of enthusiastic responses from young Jewish participants who said the visit had been a watershed experience dramatically changing their outlook on Judaism and their own identities.

“People said that within 10 days nobody can change,” said Mark. “But it turned out the experience of the college-age people (with Birthright) was very different from what had been encountered previously in similar programs with high school teen-agers.

“These young people were very serious and deep; you could see the quality of reflection. It is a time when people are looking for themselves.”

Certainly for Bachman-Streitfield, the program offered her a way to connect with her Jewish heritage in a format unavailable in the United States. She toured major biblical sites, visited synagogues where Hebrew was a living language of song and speech, and shared group experiences with dozens of other young Jews.

“I never would have considered coming to Israel on my own. In fact, when I was packing up to go, my family was celebrating Christmas,” said the young woman who grew up in Newport, R.I., and read about the program in a newspaper.

She said that the simple experience of being among so many Jews answered nagging questions about her own identity. “Before this, I never, ever called myself a Jew. But here I was able to.

“I’ve found a connection with God and with people that I didn’t have before,” she added.

For 19-year-old Michele D’Ambrosio, who grew up in an mixed Jewish-Catholic family in upstate New York, the experience transformed her embarrassment about being Jewish into a kind of pride.

“Nobody does anything Jewish in my family,” said the University of New Hampshire student after a day touring Jerusalem’s Old City with a group of some 40 other Birthright college students. “Before coming on this trip, I was always hesitant to tell people I was Jewish. I wasn’t sure if I would raise my children as Jews; now there is no way that I wouldn’t,” she said.

Searching for her identity as a young adult, D’Ambrosio tried her hand at involvement in a synagogue and even taught in a Hebrew school. But the experiences didn’t move her spiritually and the biblical places she read about meant little to her until she actually visited them.

“Seeing my roots and knowing this is where I come from and who I am made a difference,” she said. “I was at a conference in Jerusalem with 5,000 other Birthright students; I just don’t think I’ve ever felt so connected.”

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Despite the apparent success of the Israel experience, Birthright program organizers still must show the enduring value of the program and the enthusiasm can persist.

“The biggest challenge now is what to do with those who returned home very energized,” said Mark. “The question is how many Birthright participants will volunteer in their communities, maintain contact with their peer groups, become even more involved, and even return to Israel for another visit on their own.”

DEA END FLETCHER

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