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Originally published Saturday, June 14, 2014 at 6:10 AM

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Israel travel program seeks to strengthen Jewish connection

Taglit-Birthright, which provides free trips to the Holy Land for Jewish young adults, has been redoubling its efforts to help keep Jewish tradition afloat amid increasing anxiety that young members of the Diaspora are losing their connection to their culture, to Israel, and to one another.


Los Angeles Times

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DEAD SEA, West Bank — On a recent afternoon, Diana Blau, 22, was relaxing on the beach after bathing in the salty waters of the Dead Sea.

Blau’s mother is Jewish and her father Greek Orthodox. She has never strongly identified with Jewish culture or religion, she said, in part because she doesn’t regularly attended synagogue and didn’t grow up with many Jewish friends.

“There’s a disconnect,” said Blau, a graphic designer from Emerson, N.J. “I’m usually the only Jew in the room.”

In many ways Blau is the target demographic for Taglit-Birthright, which provides free trips to the Holy Land for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26.

In recent years, the program has been redoubling its efforts to help keep Jewish tradition afloat amid increasing anxiety that young members of the Jewish Diaspora are losing their connection to their culture and to Israel.

One recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that one-third of Jews under 30 in the United States said being Jewish was very important to them. That compares with 54 percent of Jews 65 and older.

Intermarriage, long viewed as a threat to American Judaism, also continues to increase.

Of survey respondents married since 2000, nearly 6 in 10 had wed a non-Jew, compared with 4 in 10 among those who married in the 1980s and 2 in 10 among those who married before 1970.

Offering Jewish young adults a chance to experience Israel together may change that.

A recent Brandeis University survey on Birthright found that participants were more than 45 percent more likely to marry someone Jewish, a statistic that underscores one of the program’s main goals: introducing Jews to one another.

Birthright encourages participants to socialize, and it also places young Israeli soldiers on every tour bus.

Birthright donor Michael Koss, a real-estate investor in West Los Angeles, said introducing Jews to one another is essential to preserving “the continuity” of Judaism.

“If there isn’t any kind of connection made, then Jews will intermarry,” he said. “And eventually there won’t be Jews anymore.”

Created in 1999 by Seagram spirits heir Charles Bronfman and hedge-fund manager Michael Steinhardt, Birthright has recently expanded through donations of more than $200 million each from Las Vegas casino magnate and Republican fundraiser Sheldon Adelson and the Israeli government.

Last year, the program sent 44,000 people to Israel, double the number four years ago.

The program has also sought to broaden its appeal by reaching out to niche groups. It now offers specialized trips for those who love the outdoors and culinary tours designed for foodies, including an evening in which participants cook a meal for Israel Defense Forces soldiers.

Other targeted tours cater to animal lovers, lacrosse players, first responders, and the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.

Blau was one of three dozen young Americans and Canadians between the ages of 18 and 26 who crisscrossed the country by bus this year.

Critics of the program, however, describe it as a vehicle for Israeli propaganda that seeks to downplay the ongoing conflict with Palestinians.



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