“Judaism is caught rather than taught”: this could be the premise for the tenday Israel program, Birthright Israel (BRI). In Ten Days of Birthright Israel—A Journey in Young Adult Identity, Leonard Saxe and Barry Chazan explore the background, implementation, and effects of this immense Jewish educational experiment. Approximately 300,000 diaspora Jews (from the US, Canada, and sixty other countries) have participated in BRI since its first trip in January 2000. While the long-term impact on its alumni will only be known over time, their large number and the program’s short-term success make understanding BRI important to Jewish communal leaders.
Never before has such a large group of Jews shared a rigorously designed, successful Jewish educational program created to engage Jews about the existential question: “What does it mean for me to be Jewish?” As a Hillel professional, I have seen the impact of the program on individual students and communities. It works. One of the special factors of BRI is the cohort who participates—Jews with little prior knowledge of Israel and/or involvement in the Jewish community. “Perhaps, the most important change from earlier trips was that prior programs were designed and marketed primarily to those who were part of Jewish educational programs and already engaged with Judaism and Israel. In contrast, many of those who participated in BRI (and, indeed, were part of the primary target group) were Jewishly unaffiliated or, at least, had little ongoing contact with the organized Jewish community” (p. 98).
Saxe and Chazan have been involved with Birthright at various stages and Chazan is the chief architect of its educational curriculum. Their stated goals in writing the book were to share the BRI story and explain how and why it has affected participants. The chapter names—“Sites and Sights,” “Pedagogy for People,” “Participants’ Voices”—demonstrate how the authors weave their two goals throughout the work. One of the most useful parts of the book is a section outlining the history of Israel programs and how Jewish informal education draws on trends in developmental and educational theory. The decision to research BRI from its inception offers insight to the unique qualities of BRI as an educational experiment.
Toward the end of the work, Saxe and Chazan highlight research conducted about trips in 2006 that focus on three key dimensions in each BRI program: the [End Page 73] tour educators, the tour groups, and the Mifgashim (Israelis who join each bus group as participants; I will explain more about this in a moment). The research was used to make educational decisions about future trips. In the authors’ words, “it is important to know whether or not the program has had an impact, but it is also important to understand the nature of that impact on Birthright Israel’s alumni” (p. 149). The tour educators “who convey the major themes that constitute Birthright Israel’s core curriculum” (ibid.) are not mere tour guides pointing out tourist sites. They are passionate informal educators demonstrating love of Israel and the Jewish people. The group itself is a key element in the experience. The authors write that “[p]revious research stressing the importance of the ‘group experience’ has argued that tour groups serve as a proxy for the Jewish people as a whole” (ibid.). It is the group that enables the participants to absorb Israel, Judaism, and Jewish peoplehood.
“Mifgashim,” a program that brings together Israelis and Birthright participants, is an important element of the program and the book. Saxe and Cohen write that “[these Mifgashim] have come to distinguish [Birthright] as a heritage educational experience, enabling it to succeed with participants who vary widely in their backgrounds, their knowledge, and their motivations” (p. 150). These Israeli peers (often soldiers who arrive in uniform but soon match their peers’ casual attire) join the group as full participants for some or all of the program. After early evaluations demonstrated the success and importance of the Mifgashim part of the program, it became an increasingly meaningful part...