Notes on Birthright Israel

The city of Tsfat

I returned a few days ago from a Birthright trip to Israel. Birthright is an organization that sponsors free ten-day trips to Israel for young Jews in an effort to keep “the next generation” connected to their Jewish roots. Somebody on my trip compared it to the timeshare business model, where the potential customer is given a free weekend stay in a timeshare condo in exchange for lending an ear to a salesman/hypnotist.

The Israel sales pitch was expertly crafted and delivered throughout the trip. Birthright outsources the planning and running of the trips to a handful of trip organizers. My group was run by Oranim, the largest Birthright organizer. The ten-day tour was bookended by two sessions with Shlomo “Momo” Lifshitz, the enthusiastic, pudgy Israeli who is president of Oranim. Momo has achieved something resembling cult status among the Birthright crowd, or, as he boasts, “Over 4000 friends on Facebook!” Momo is upfront about the motives of the Birthright program, and his message revolves around a few central ideas:

  • Young Jews are not as connected to their religion or to Israel as past generations.
  • Nobody has the right to “break the chain” of Jewish identity.
  • Marry Jewish and make Jewish babies.

Only one other part of the tour featured a comparable level of indoctrination: the so-called “Mega Event.” This was an outrageously extravagant production featuring pyrotechnics; several supposedly famous Israeli musicians; and 15-foot-tall LED screens in the shape of the number “200,000” to celebrate the 200,000th Birthright participant, who happened to be a handsome Olympic swimmer. The auditorium was filled with about 2500 young Jews from around the world representing every possible level of enthusiasm. I was exhausted from simply watching the Brazilians, and opted for the reclining ovations popular among many of the American attendees. By some stroke of terrible misfortune, my group was chosen to go up on stage for a portion of the Event, standing behind one of the well-endowed philanthropists who support the Birthright program. So instead of spending the day in Tel Aviv as planned, we drove to Jerusalem to get talked at by a stage manager who explained to us how we were symbolic or something.

The view from the stage of the Mega Event

I was impressed with how well everything about the trip somehow fit into Momo’s message. I noticed that nearly everyone who talked to us, from the artist in Tsfat to the guy who did a session on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, moved to Israel when they were in their 20’s or 30’s. I was also surprised–and grateful–that dozens of Jewish philanthropists and organizations are willing to bet millions of dollars on a pretty radical and forward-thinking idea: give these kids a chance to connect with their roots in a way they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise, and hopefully some of them will be inspired to overcome the forces of assymilation and keep the Jewish faith alive. The financial backers are fully aware that not every ~$5000 investment will result in a more Jewish Jew, and that’s the cool thing. I’d love to hear someone with more of a marketing mind talk about this scheme (I’m looking at you, Josh). Although its success is difficult to measure, it just might be crazy enough to work.