"By autumn 2008, nearly two hundred thousand young Jewish adults aged eighteen to twenty-six from around the world had participated in Taglit-Birthright Israel, which consists of ten-day educational experiences in Israel. Approximately 75 percent of the participants were from North America, with the majority coming from the United States. The remaining 25 percent came from more than fifty countries around the world. This makes Birthright Israel the largest-ever Jewish communal education project.
The aim of Birthright Israel is to make the participants' Jewish identity more relevant to them, to enhance ahavat Yisrael (love of Israel), and to promote a sense of Jewish peoplehood."
Prof. Saxe describes the intensive social atmosphere created in the Birthright Israel groups enhanced by the context of an intense meeting with Israel, past and present, and the "Mifgash" encounter with young Israelis who join the groups for part of the trip. Research, based on interviews with tens of thousands of participants, shows great levels of impact on participants' Jewish identity and Jewish knowledge as a result of participating in the program. Participants who showed lower levels of Jewish identity before the trip, showed higher levels of change than those who initially reported higher levels of Jewish identity, but the pattern of change is identical for both.
The returning Birthright graduates have been helping to bring about much more Jewish activity on campuses around North America. The Hillel and Chabad organizations have much greater attendance at Jewish and Israel centered activities. There is also greater enrollment in courses on Jewish studies and Israel.
There is more of a problem attracting post college Birthright graduates to community Jewish and Israel activities. Some Jewish communities are more proactive in this area and are successful in attracting participants. A new organization, "Birthright Next" has been created to help in this area.
Professor Saxe told of research findings about the Israeli participants. "Israeli participants report the same kinds of positive impact as their Diaspora peers. Young adult participants come to see themselves as members of Klal Israel (the Jewish people at large), not just as Israelis."
Among Prof. Saxe' conclusions:
"Although the worldwide economic downturn will likely result in fewer participants and longer wait-lists than in 2008, the program seems assured of providing an Israel-education experience for twenty-five thousand or more Diaspora young adults each year.
The Jewish community needs to decide if it wants an Israel experience to be a normative element for its youth. If the funding is available, and we can reach a point where well over 50 percent of the American Jewish population has had an Israel experience, my sense is that Diaspora Jewry would be transformed."