When she saw Jerusalem's Western Wall for the first time the other day, Whitney Zivan wept. This, in a way, was exactly what her sponsors were hoping.
The wall is a place of pilgrimage for many Jews, a symbol for centuries of longing and loss, faith and tradition. But Zivan, a 20-year-old student from Clifton in Fairfax County, is like a lot of American Jews, which is to say, not very connected to things Jewish. She is not religious, did not have a bat mitzvah, speaks scarcely a word of Hebrew and blushes when asked what she has read about Israel.
In other words, Zivan is exactly the sort of American Jew who qualifies for an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel, courtesy of a handful of Jewish philanthropists, the Israeli government and Jewish charitable organizations.
Zivan is among 6,000 young Jews from the United States, Canada and elsewhere who have been flown here this month for a 10-day trip explicitly intended to change their lives. Their arrival marks the start of a program whose goals are astonishingly ambitious: Bring tens of thousands of secular Jewish teenagers and young adults to Israel in the next five years, free of charge, connect them to their history, culture and peers and thereby halt the high rates of intermarriage, assimilation and drift among American and other Diaspora Jews.
A variety of programs have long brought American Jews to Israel. But none has approached even a fraction of the size of this undertaking, called Birthright Israel, and many have focused on religious Jews and others already heavily involved with their community. This program, organizers say, is for the "great silent majority" of Diaspora Jews. It is, they explain, nothing less than a $210 million marketing campaign intended to sell Jewishness to Jews.
"The [American] melting pot worked beyond our wildest fears," said Richard Joel, president of Hillel, the college campus Jewish organization. "This is the first Jewish generation where being a Jew is an option and not a condition. If we can get Jews to feel comfortable with their Jewishness and proud of it, they will make more of their lives Jewish flavored."
Birthright is a response to a widely held perception that in the United States--still home to the world's largest Jewish population, about 5.6 million--Jews are at demographic risk. A trend toward intermarriage that began in the late 1960s rang alarm bells with the publication of a 1990 study that found just over half of American Jews were marrying non-Jews. Some scholars have insisted the real rate is closer to 40 percent, but that is still exceptionally high by historical standards.
The rising rate of intermarriage is a symptom of Jewish success in America, analysts say. "Victimization is historical now," Joel said. "The Holocaust is history, not memory. Antisemitism is not a defining experience of every Jew." In such an environment, American Jews have become more likely to disperse and assimilate.
At the same time, the romance that once bloomed between American Jews and Israel has cooled in the past generation. Israel--prosperous and powerful--has shed the underdog's image that lured American Jews here by the thousand as tourists, volunteers and immigrants in the 1960s and '70s.
The driving idea behind Birthright is that renewing a connection to the Jewish state will trigger other connections for secular and otherwise uninvolved Diaspora Jews--with other Jews at their colleges, with Jewish organizations and between Jewish boyfriends and girlfriends.
"In America, ethnic is in, so for many of these kids finding an ethnic identity is very in tune with what their peers are doing," said Len Saxe, director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.
The race to infuse Jews with Jewish flavoring was going at full throttle the other day at Jerusalem's convention center.
The Birthright students' options were dizzying: offers of science courses, internships in Israel and software exploring Jewish genealogy. Special offers on concerts, magazines, plants and Jewish seminaries. Computer jocks were invited to study in Israel's own Silicon Valley north of Tel Aviv; travel agencies offered cut-rate return visits to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Elsewhere were classes on Jewish sex, Jewish history, Jewish mysticism, Jewish wine, Jewish leadership, Jewish music, Jewish ecology and Jewish business opportunities.
The hall buzzed, and many of the students said they had rarely felt so recruited, or so welcome. Many had just returned from tours around Israel, and it had clearly made an impression.
"Being here in this building, in any room, or in this city, where most of the people around me are Jewish--not being a minority--it's just really great," said Zivan, the student from Fairfax, a senior studying marketing at Virginia Tech.
Said Adam Berke, a senior economics major at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore: "It makes you feel like, after 4,000 years of Jews being around, I don't want to be the generation that makes it end. I mean, they've been the victims of outright bloody murder, but we can't be bothered to go to synagogue?"
This sort of talk would be music to the ears of Birthright's main sponsors, Charles Bronfman, co-chairman of Seagram Co., and Michael Steinhardt, who made a fortune as a Wall Street money manager. Both are leading Jewish philanthropists in North America.
Having dreamed up Birthright, they persuaded the Israeli government and Council of Jewish Federations to contribute $70 million each, and recruited a dozen other philanthropists to chip in $5 million each.
The rules of the program are simple: Anyone who is Jewish and has not traveled previously in a group to Israel is eligible. Most of the "winners" for this month's trip were chosen by lottery--4,000 from North America and 2,000 from South America, Europe and the former Soviet Union. The next large group is scheduled to arrive in May.
"I'm trying to make Jews," said Bronfman. "You can live a perfectly decent life not being Jewish, but I think you're losing a lot--losing the kind of feeling you have when you know throughout the world there are people who somehow or other have the same kind of DNA that you have."
Inevitably, given the scope of its budget and goals, Birthright has come under attack. In Israel, where 220,000 people are jobless and the gap between rich and poor is widening, some politicians have skewered Birthright as a massive waste of money. Religious critics have scoffed at the program's agenda as a shallow secular attempt to empty Jewishness of Judaism. Others have derided it as a junket for often affluent youngsters, a well-intended quick fix that simply will not work.
Birthright "will not bear positive results beyond providing many young Jews with a publicly funded good time and, at best, a memory of a pleasant Israel encounter," Isi Leibler, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, wrote in the Jerusalem Post.
Birthright officials, stung by the criticism, have commissioned research to track the student visitors after they go home. The criteria for success are varied and fuzzy, they acknowledge. A drop in the rate of intermarriage would certainly count, they say, and so would a surge in participation in Jewish communities.
"Will it reach the majority of them? Probably not," conceded Steinhardt, the co-sponsor. "Will it reach some of them and have an impact on their Jewishness? I think so."
Washington Post researcher Eetta Prince-Gibson contributed to this report.
Jews in the Diaspora
Of the world's estimated 13.5 million Jews, 8.6 million live outside Israel and their number is rapidly declining because of intermarriage with gentiles. About half of all Jews in the Diaspora marry non-Jews.
Number of Jews in selected countries:
U.S. 5.6 million
Israel 4.8 million
Percentage of Jews in selected countries who marry outside their faith:
SOURCE: World Jewish Congress, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, National Jewish Population Survey, Inside magazine