Since its inception in 2000, Birthright Israel (BRI) has brought nearly 200,000 young adults from 52 countries on a ten-day trip to Israel to discover their roots, learn about their religion and develop a Jewish identity beyond whatever they picked up in Hebrew school. Drawing young Jews from across the spectrums of geography, religious observance and travel experience, BRI has become a new rite of passage - for many filling the chasm between bar or bat mitzvah and marriage.
A recently released book called, Ten Days of Birthright Israel: A Journey in Young Adult Identity, parallels the trip in 10 chapters and links into several other Brandeis research projects into Birthright's impact on young Jews' attachment to Israel, participants' affiliation with Jewish institutions and even new rituals that have grown out of the trip.
My brother, sister, several friends and I have all particpated in Birthright trips and I can certainly attest to the impact it has made in many lives. I am also a staunch supporter of additional funding to allow more young people to go on trips; of more research to measure how BRI alumni are impacted by their experiences; and of comprehensive post-BRI programming to give young people an outlet for their newly-rekindled Jewish identities in their hometowns.
But what struck me recently, and what I haven't seen much of in the Birthright studies, is its potential to replace the neighborhood shadchan in making Jewish matches. According to an article in the New York Times, Michael Steinhardt (a major Birthright financier), offers a honeymoon at his Caribbean villa to anyone who meets and marries someone from Birthright. So far, 30 couples have taken advantage of this post-trip perk.
Like the Jews, the Taiwanese, Italians, Armenians, Irish and even Palestinians have created similar programs to introduce young people to their respective ethnic heritages, homelands... and to each other. But does it work? I Googled "Birthright Israel" and "marriage" and found surprisingly little of substance. Sure, there are the odd stories about the couple who married on a Birthright trip or met on some romantic kibbutz (surely not Ketura!), but there is very little on the pimping potential of Birthright and its ilk.
Mr. Steinhardt if you're reading this - I have a degree in public policy and Jewish communal service and would happy to launch a study, tentatively titled, "Hooking up in the Holy Land: Romantic Relationships and Birthright Israel."
To any readers who have gone on a Birthright trip - did you hook up with anyone? Did it lead to a relationship? Does this idea have legs or are there too many confounding factors (coming from different cities, age spread, etc.)?
As for me, I'm off on my own summer odyssey to a location much less fraught with conflict and religious symbolism - Portland, Oregon. I'm not sure if I'll meet the love of my life or have a spiritual awakening, but I hope to have some great pictures. See you all in a week!