A new study suggesting that Birthright alumni are nearly 60 percent more likely to marry Jewish partners made waves this week, as Jewish intellectuals and professionals discussed the study's merits and what lessons can be learned from it. One of the key questions was whether the figures - which are based on interviews with participants from 2001 to 2004, at the height of the intifada - would show a greater or lower Jewish commitment in more recent years.
The study documents participants' enhanced connectedness to Israel and increased interest in creating Jewish families. For example, participants were 23 percent likelier than non-participants to feel "very much" connected to Israel, and non-Orthodox Birthright alumni were 57 percent likelier to marry a Jew than their peers who applied but never participated.
Many commentators are hailing the study as a confirmation of what they always knew. Gidi Mark, the CEO of Birthright, told Haaretz he was aware of the trips' impact, but that he was "positively surprised" upon seeing the actual figures. "We anticipated the study's results with a lot of tension, because they could've also been negative," he said.
Since 1999, Birthright has sent some 220,000 young Diaspora Jews on free trips to Israel.
"I'm very proud to hear that Birthright finally says what I said all along, that intermarriage is the big issue," said Shlomo "Momo" Lifshitz, whose organization, Oranim, used to provide trips for Birthright, but split this summer because he says he was forbidden from telling participants to "make Jewish babies."
"I'm happy that Birthright understands that this program - if run correctly can really have an impact on preventing assimilation. Unfortunately, they are using this [study] to raise money," he added, lamenting that while Birthright now reaps the praise for preventing intermarriage, he wasn't allow to freely spread this message.
Like several observers - and the study's authors themselves - Lifshitz points out that the people interviewed for the study came on Birthright trips during the second intifada. Thus, the pool of respondents contains a larger percentage of Jews already somewhat affiliated with Israel. Most people interpret this to mean that Birthright's impact would be even greater on more recent participants, as the study showed that the less engaged in Judaism a participant, the more the program can affect him or her.
Several interviewees for this article pointed out the study was financed by Birthright itself, saying this is "not ideal." But most rejected any implications of wrongdoing on the part of the authors, who are well-respected researchers.
Some observers drew attention to "intriguing contradictions" in the study. Sergio Della Pergola, who teaches Jewish demography and statistics at Hebrew University, mentioned that the rate of intermarriage was higher among participants than among non-participants. "However, here we must be careful, because the non-participants are persons who applied for the program and were not accepted, whereas a real comparison should be done with young Jews who did not apply," he told Anglo File. "In the case of intermarriage, the latter would probably have an even higher rate."
The author of the influential anti-Orthodox blog Failed Messiah, Shmarya Rosenberg, dedicated nearly 1,000 words to what he called an "extremely flawed" report. Among other things, he also criticized that the control group consisted of Birthright applicants
Considering the scope and the depth of the research, Jonathan Sarna, a Brandeis professor of American Jewish history, spoke of "one of the most remarkable studies of an American-Jewish program." Yet he said he would be curious to see future studies of how different trip organizers and changes in Birthright's curriculum and leadership affect the figures, he added.
Sarna also questioned whether Birthright's transformative quality is dependent on Israel. In the 1970s, he said, many American Jews went on different, "absolutely transformative" Jewish-themed 10-day trips visiting Jewish refuseniks in the Soviet Union.
"Many were changed by the trip for the rest of their lives," Sarna, who is currently on sabbatical in Jerusalem, said. Realizing how powerful these trips were helps validate the Birthright study, he added. "At the same time, it reminds us that transformational experiences do not only have to happen in Israel."
Today, many young Jews travel to the developing world on so-called social justice trips, he explained, wondering whether these trips have the same impact as Birthright. "The study suggests that Israel is special and that coming here is different than going and helping as a Jew poor people in Peru," he said. "I believe that, too, but it'd be wonderful to see it actually tested and to look at different kinds of transformational activities."
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