Why every Jewish kid goes on Birthright

It is a rite of passage for almost every Jewish college student. Its impact goes even further than you know.

In honor of my niece’s return from her Birthright trip — which has become an American Jewish rite of passage — I talked with sociologist, Len Saxe, about what Birthright gets right. Click here to listen.

But, meanwhile, I have an earworm going through my brain. It is the old Israeli pioneer song “Anu banu artza” — “We have come to the Land of Israel, to build it and to be re-built by it.”

That was always the meaning of Zionism. The Jewish people would come home to its ancestral land, reclaim it, build it – and in the process, be re-built by it. Not only the people itself, but the persons who make up the people. The land and idea of Israel had – and has – the power to

build each Jew.

That is why the greatest Jewish educational success of the past several decades has been Taglit-Birthright — an intensive ten-day educational program designed to connect Jewish young adults to their heritage, through a trip to Israel.

Birthright has been so successful that you practically just have to say the name – Birthright. It is its own brand. It’s like saying Coke or Toyota.

Birthright is so famous that it was even the subject of a episode of the comedy series “Broad City,” in which the two Jewish girls, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, go to Israel on a trip called Birthmark. It seems that every young Jewish man and woman on the plane just want to simply hook up with each other and get married. One couple even winds up engaged midair, before they land in Israel.

That was the show’s way of satirizing one of Birthright’s most compelling elements — that tricky thing called “Jewish continuity.”

Len and I talk about all that. We also talk about the effects that Birthright has had on children of intermarriage, and how the experience has rooted them more to their Jewish heritage.

And, we also talk about a young black woman named Mercedes Bent.

When she was a freshman at Harvard, she attended a meeting of the Association of Black Harvard Women.

Mercedes longed for a more intimate connection with her African heritage.

A Jewish friend told her about Birthright.

Mercedes traveled to Israel with some of her friends. The trip forced her to break the tenth commandment.

She coveted. She coveted her friends’ connection with their land, and with their spiritual inheritance, and with their sense of identity.

Mercedes decided to create a trip to west Africa for her black friends and classmates. They learned to cook traditional dishes. They attended traditional ceremonies. She had her hair braided. They learned about investment opportunities in Nigeria. They learned about Nigerian history. They attended Nigerian cultural festivals.

More than that: The group visited castles that once held their ancestors—the castles from which captured slaves departed and never returned.

Thus was born Birthright AFRICA. 

What moved Mercedes the most about her experience in west Africa was her ability to be herself – to not have to worry about racism, to not have to be on guard. It was her ability to be free.

Which is precisely one of the definitions of Zionism. To quote “Hatikva” — “to be a free people in our land.” That means: free not only from oppression, but also free to live, creatively and openly and vitally – and responsibly — as Jews. To create the Judaism not of the past, but of the future.

That connection to a past is what minority communities need and for which they hunger – especially for their children. That education and that connection boosts their self-esteem and even their academic performance. This has been true for black children, and for Asian-American children, and for Latino adolescents, and for Native Americans – where they discovered that when people participated in their indigenous traditions, it can prevent suicide and addiction.

Mercedes wrote in the New York Times:

I would love to see a philanthropist or foundation fund educational trips to Ghana, Nigeria and other African countries for black young adults from other parts of the diaspora, making this experience accessible to more people who could benefit from it as much as I did – from the power of exploring my ethnic-racial identity in the place where my ancestors lived, and the most important lesson I learned on my journey: It really is possible to heal through heritage.

That teaches us that Jews have influenced the world – in ways that we could not have even imagined.

President Obama once reminisced about a camp counselor that he had when he was in sixth grade. The camp counselor was Jewish. The camp counselor told his young charges all about Israel.

At that precise moment, President Obama understood the opportunity that exists “when people return to their Land and excavate their best traditions and their best selves.”

That is all we can ask for — that we will excavate our best traditions and our best selves.

Whoever you are, and whatever your people.

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