Last month, Hebrew University in Jerusalem hosted the first conference to look specifically at the impact of the Birthright trips to Israel, which offer any Jew aged 18-26 a free first Israel experience. The programme was launched 13 years ago and has been responsible for providing more than 340,000 young Jewish adults from 62 countries with their first educational taste of Israel.
The conference heard from Professor Leonard Saxe of Brandeis University. To the shock of Jewish mothers the world over, Prof Saxe has established that Birthright participants marry later — on average by 18-months — than their Jewish peers who would have been eligible for Birthright but never went.
At the age of 28, Birthright participants have a 31 per cent chance of being married compared to 39 per cent for their peers. By the age of 34, the probability increases to 59 per cent for alumni against 68 per cent.
Why the delay? Well, here’s the good news. Prof Saxe found that, influenced by their formative Israel experience, Birthright participants were spending that time looking for a Jewish partner. While their peers were marrying out at a rate of one in two, Birthright participants were marrying in at the rate of three in four. Furthermore, where Birthright participants did find a non-Jewish partner, 13 per cent underwent a formal conversion. Among non-participants the figure was next to nothing.
His findings tally with research undertaken by UJIA, which is responsible for sending more than half of our Jewish 16-year-olds to Israel with youth movements every year. They found that 45 per cent of their participants were more likely to marry Jewish as a result of their Israel experience.
So what’s new? A positive Israel experience has a positive impact on Jewish identity. Is there anything revolutionary in this? Saxe himself was surprised at the level of effectiveness of these programmes, particularly with regard to marrying-in, but what should be of crucial interest to us, knowing what we do about the centrality of Israel to being Jewish, is what we as a community do about it.
Over the past few years, there has been a something of a revaluation of how Israel is positioned by many of the traditional Israel charities. In an attempt to be more relevant to an audience that is demonstrably more interested than previous generations in global issues, many groups have looked to provide alternatives to straight “Israel focused” fundraising and activity.
The delineation between “home” and “Israel” charities has become blurred and the likes of World Jewish Relief have benefited as our community has broadened its outlook. Donors now see it as part of the appeal for a charity to be offering something beyond “just” Israel. Indeed, some look at the much-vaulted “start-up nation” and its array of entrepreneur millionaires and question why it still needs Anglo-Jewry’s money. A valid question, but it misses the point.
Asher Ginsberg, more commonly known as Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am, is famously (and frequently) quoted as saying “more than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” While this may have been the case for Ginsberg in late-19th-century Kiev, the sentiment can be reframed for the early-21st-century diaspora. Since the establishment of the Zionist movement, through 1948 and Israel’s numerous wars, our relationship with Israel has been predicated on the notion that Israel needs us to secure its very existence. Now that dynamic has been turned on its head. It is us, the Jews of the diaspora, that need Israel.
As a community, Israel must remain central to our identity. Instead of looking for ways to turn down the volume at times when donors might be put off, we must keep the flag flying high. Our communal organisations, shuls and schools must be encouraged to place as much of a focus on Israel as they do on local institutions. And if it means that our kids marry later, that’s fine by me.