This is a guest post by Sara Beth Berman. Sara Beth is a graduate of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at JTS.  An avid waterskiier, she got into Jewish education because she wanted to drive a boat for a summer.  Now, she has completed an MA thesis on teaching Israel in North American Jewish summer camps, and spent a year living in Israel.  You can see her snarky comments about her Israel year on her blog.
Yesterday morning, while it seemed like the majority of the Jewish world was at JStreet, I set out to the Brandeis House in NYC to join a small group hearing about the results of the latest Leonard Saxe, et. al. study, “Generation Birthright Israel: The Impact of an Israel Experience on Jewish Identity and Choices.” Read the study for yourself here.
Taglit-Birthright Israel is a huge undertaking, with nearly 225,000 people having gone to Israel through their trips since 1999. Seventy-three percent of the participants saw the trip as either “very much” or “somewhat” of a life-changing experience. Large percentages left the program feeling connected to Israel and say they are now able to engage in a conversation about the current situation in Israel. The presenters joked about moving Taglit to Cancun, and jokingly lamented that a trip to Cancun wouldn’t yield the same sort of results in terms of Jewish engagement.
It should be noted that this study was funded by Taglit-Birthright Israel, and, thankfully, the potential bias was addressed. Saxe noted that the supporters of the study, including Taglit, allowed for independent, objective, and even-handed investigation. I had recognized that as a potential area to compose snark, and I was pleased (or, more accurately, somewhat disappointed) that Saxe himself addressed the Taglit-as-funder issue.
After sitting down, the research team gave us the survey results, including the intermarriage statistic that has been examined everywhere from Wall Street Journal headlines to a snarky interpretation on Gawker Media’s Jezebel, and a thoughtful piece in the blog e-Jewish Philanthropy. At last! The cure to the scourge of intermarriage! Me-of-15-years-ago would be so pleased to hear this!
Jews from a wide range of backgrounds, representing unaffiliated and all denominations, are engaging with Israel and their Jewish identity, because any engagement with any fragment of Jewish life is a positive step. Barry Shrage of Boston’s CJP stated in his presentation that this is a tipping point moment, after 10 years of Taglit. The study indicates that Taglit is a chance to leave a legacy, to make an impact on worldwide Jewry, just by sending the 18- to 26-year-old cohort on a free trip to Israel. Regardless of one’s politics, this is the time to tip toward engagement with one’s own Jewish identity through whatever route one chooses. If a 10-day trip to Israel is the way to do it, I’m all for it. Pass me a schwarma.