c. 2005 Religion News Service
(UNDATED) There was a time not long ago when young Jody Portnoff was barely aware of her Jewish heritage.
Reared in a secular home in Georgia’s Bible Belt, “We did Hanukkah, but we also did Christmas. We did Passover, but we had Easter baskets.” In college she joined a women’s Christian service group to participate in their good works.
But four years ago she was, by her account, utterly transformed by a free, 10-day trip to Israel targeted precisely at people like her: teenagers and young adults only vaguely connected to their Judaism.
Portnoff returned a different person, eager to learn who she was as a Jew, and for the first time attuned to the daily news coming out of the Middle East.
She learned Hebrew. She became bat mitzvah last year at 28, 15 years after Jewish teenagers usually conduct the ceremony that marks their entry into Jewish adulthood. She joined Hadassah, a women’s service organization. And she took a new job: Jewish student life coordinator at the Hillel Center at Tulane University in New Orleans.
Portnoff could be the poster child for Taglit-birthright israel, an international effort to rebuild Jewish identity among young adults and sow the seeds of advocacy for Israel.
Formed slightly more than five years ago as an experiment in revitalizing Jewish identity, it recently received another five-year commitment from its donor base of American Jewish philanthropists, Jewish communities throughout the world and the government of Israel.
For years, Jewish leaders have been worried about the continuing erosion of Jewish identity in the United States as assimilation and intermarriage seem to dilute the culture from generation to generation.
Most communities operate networks of summer camps and day schools to help families nourish their Jewish roots.
In the late 1990s, two philanthropists _ hedge-fund tycoon Michael H. Steinhardt and Charles R. Bronfman, then co-chairman of the Seagram Co. _ launched Taglit-birthright israel as another tool in that effort.
Israel is not the only party in the Middle East conflict to recognize the importance of cultivating American support through firsthand witness.
For some time, backers of the Palestinian cause have recruited American opinion leaders to view living and working conditions in the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank, said Georgette Ioup of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
Groups have hosted American clergy, students, teachers, lawyers and even the mayor of every American city and town named Palestine, Ioup said. The visitors served a dual purpose, she said: to protect people around them from violence by their visible presence, and to return with testimony about living conditions among Palestinians.
On her side, Portnoff was one of 70,000 young people between the ages of 18 and 26 making the trip since the founding of the program. Birthright israel expects to send another 11,000 this summer, including 8,000 from the United States, a spokeswoman said.
Portnoff’s tour was designed as a “taste of Israel,” she recalled in an interview. With 40 young traveling companions, she saw Judaism’s holiest site, the Western Wall of the ancient temple; the Old City of Jerusalem; Tel Aviv; and wineries in the Golan Heights.
At a huge event for all the international visitors, the message was driven home: “Israel is your home, we’re here for you, you’re welcome to come back at any time, we’ll welcome you with open arms,” Portnoff said.
The combination of that first exposure to Israel and experiencing the collective Judaism of her fellow travelers left Portnoff intoxicated.
“When I came back, I realized I’m Jewish. I’m excited to be Jewish, … and I want to learn to be an important part of this community,” she said.
Moreover, she found she was developing a love for Israel, although she acknowledges that the passion and complexity of its struggle with Palestinians leave her perplexed and overwhelmed.
“I’m a Jewish advocate for Israel, … but Israel is not just Jewish people. It’s a Jewish homeland, but diversity is what makes Israel so special. This is not a perfect world. And you’re not going to have a country that’s full of only Jewish people. You need to compromise with the diversity of Israel. I don’t know; it’s hard. It’s still very confusing to me.”
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Even so, the energy of Portnoff’s transformation was noted. She was named one of the program’s 12 international Charlie Award winners, reserved for the program’s most promising successes.
A second birthright tour for Portnoff and her fellow Charlie Award winners followed earlier this year. But as potentially exceptional leaders, this time they were deliberately exposed to a different Israel, one with pockets of poverty, homelessness and other problems, she said.
“It’s a country that’s struggling, that’s in need.”
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Portnoff said she plans a future using her new master’s degree in social work, but one rooted in Jewish community service _ perhaps in Hillel, a national organization for Jewish college students, or with Hadassah _ and in service to an identity that did not exist a few years ago.
“Now I think of myself as a strong Jewish woman,” she said.
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(Bruce Nolan is a staff writer for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans.)