All year long I look forward to running Birthright.
The chance to take dozens of young Jews, with varying connections to their Jewish identity, to Israel is truly one of the highlights of my year. As a Rabbi and Israel educator across Southern California college campuses, I spend all year trying to teach students that Judaism is far more than the stale religion they may have learned about as a child.
In Israel, I don’t need to teach, I can show. In Israel it is self-evident.
Writing in 1897, the founder of cultural Zionism, Ahad Ha’am, envisioned a Jewish state that would serve as the center for the global Jewish community. It was not the survival of the Jewish people but rather Judaism that was the fundamental impetus for Ha’am’s support of this nascent idea of modern Zionism.
Judaism in the diaspora, he taught, simply cannot reach its true form and potential. Only in Israel can the multi-faceted civilizational nature of Judaism truly thrive.
This is exactly what Birthright does. It allows Jews living worldwide to come to our homeland and experience this civilization firsthand.
It is no surprise that Birthright trips have been on pause during the COVID-19 pandemic. Luckily, however, Birthright is launching the first-of-its-kind interactive video “Choose Your Own Adventure” on a platform called Eko, allowing people to choose in real time which sites in Israel they want to visit.
This was the first time in history that Birthright-Israel has postponed all trips since mid-March. “While tens of thousands of Jewish young adults were planning to visit Israel this summer, the organization quickly turned to online high-quality engagement with its alumni and prospective participants,” says Noa Bauer, vice president of global marketing at Birthright.
“Since mid-March we’ve reached 4.4 million people around the world. Today we invite the thousands of Birthright applicants whose trips were canceled, as well as past and future Birthright participants, their families and loved ones, to take part in a virtual tour of Israel using unprecedented technology.”
While Birthright was working on the project, Professor Len Saxe of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University issued a report studying all Birthright applicants whose trips were postponed. The study found that COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the emotional distress of Birthright applicants; At least one in five feels lonely, hampered by emotional difficulties and that they are not coping well.
In addition, about a third are interested in any kind of Jewish online engagement–just like the one Birthright is launching. According to Saxe’s study, 18% of Birthright applicants whose trips were canceled are willing to board a plane to Israel “right now.”
“The tour is available for every person that wants to get a glimpse of what Israel has to offer, from historic sites to Israeli Innovation in a fun, innovative way,” says Bauer, “But we are still working relentlessly on making the proper adjustments in creating safe and possible options for Birthright trips to resume, supporting both Israel’s relations with the Diaspora as well as providing massive support and income to Israel’s periphery and tourism industry.”
Birthright has been one of the most successful Jewish programs of the past generation. The impact it has on young American Jews and their identity in the Jewish community is unrivaled by any other program on its scale. While we are all, of course, hoping and praying that trips will be able to resume as soon as possible, Birthright’s virtual tours is another example of the innovation of the Jewish community during these tough times.
So sit back, relax and join Navee, a local Israeli guide, on a virtual tour of the country. For more information please visit www.taglit-birthrightisrael.com.
RABBI DANIEL LEVINEis the Senior Jewish Educator at OC Hillel, the Rabbinic fellow at Temple Beth Tikvah, and a contributing writer to JLife magazine.