As we enter this year’s High Holidays season, I am delighted to share a few thoughts with you all — our extended Birthright Israel family. It is hard to believe, but Birthright Israel embarks on celebrating two decades of operation; and while we are surely gratified by this project’s unprecedented achievements on behalf of world Jewry and the State of Israel, we already try to imagine the next 20 years and the envisioned trajectory of our young Jewish adults in the contemporary world. As we reflect on Birthright Israel’s evolution these past twenty years — and with over 700,000 worldwide graduates — we take great pride at the project’s immense contribution to Jewish and Israel education, to a sense of Jewish unity, and to the creation of long-lasting relationships between young Jews the world over. But more than anything, I believe, it is the fact that so many participants have been transformed as members of the Jewish people by their experience with us.
Indeed, Birthright Israel renders itself not a Site-Seeing trip, but an Insight-Seeing journey – a distinction that encapsulates our entire educational philosophy, pedagogy and approach; for one of our chief goals is not merely to scout Israel and visit previously uncharted landmarks, but do so as a means of scouting one’s own uncharted areas of mind and soul: to offer a platform that allows our participants to traverse landscapes of meaning that either have been taken for granted or perhaps even hitherto gone unnoticed. Birthright Israel cultivates a space that is as safe as it is brave to exercise ownership over one’s identity as a Jew, not be given a subscribed recipe for its application. This simple yet profoundly intentional approach is not to be taken lightly, for it constitutes an eye-opener of existential worth for scores of our participants, on their path from “Jews by Birth” to “Jews by Worth”: the realization that “Why be Jewish” starts from an explicit premise that aims to unpack the profound meaning that has always nurtured the very foundations and fabric of our Jewish civilization; that Judaism is rooted in inward meaning-making and not simply in outward practice; that “doing Jewish” aims to manifest a profound sense of “being Jewish”, and that both realms call for honest, rigorous, responsible, intelligent and enjoyable attention; that being part of “Am Yisrael” means to commit oneself to deeper existential, spiritual, cognitive and intellectual questions — individually, communally and as world citizens.
Our Jewish sources not only speak of the intrinsic value of Torah Study (used here as a euphemism for Jewish education, identity formation, and communal commitment) but remind us that a person will not engage in it from a place of personal inner desire (Bab. Avoda Zara 19a).
Indeed, Birthright Israel has made it its sacred mission to cater to a generation of young Jews who are intelligent, alert and care deeply about a host of issues, yet might never been given a genuine path to experience the inherent contribution of living Jewishly to their interests, passions, and convictions. For as this High Holiday season reminds us each year, it is indeed a grand Jewish legacy to rediscover the eternally relevant depth and breadth of Judaism “in each generation anew.”
Wishing us all a meaningful and enjoyable High Holiday season.