CAMD Scholar Zoe Chazen Examines Effects of Diaspora Jews Returning to Israel

Placing a prayer scribbled down on a rolled-up piece of parchment paper into Jerusalem’s Western Wall, Zoe Chazen ’14 felt a spontaneous connection to all the Jews who had come to partake in this storied tradition, and grew one step closer to her Jewish identity.

The feelings that Chazen experienced on her Birthright journey are not unique. Many American diaspora Jews—non-Israeli Jews dispersed throughout the world—feel changes in their perceptions of their Jewish identities after returning from Israel. In her Community and Multicultural Development (CAMD) Scholar presentation last Friday, titled “Taglit-Birthright: Universalizing the Israel Experience,” Chazen sought to explore why these changes occur after a journey to Israel.

To focus her presentation and see why these changes in perception occur, Chazen looked specifically at the Taglit-Birthright (Birthright), a program dedicated to ensuring the continuation of Jewish culture and traditions. Birthright sponsors ten-day trips to Israel for young Jewish adults, according to the program’s website.

Chazen emphasized the connection to the land of Israel as vital to her experience in the country. In the Birthright program, participants partake in Tiyulim or hiking in order to engage with the landscape of the country.

“[Birthright] centers around the belief of really feeling and knowing… In order to know something, you have to feel it and it has to be [emotional]… [To] know the land of Israel is to commune with the land of Israel,” said Chazen.

“Even when I just talk about Israeli landscape, it’s interesting how nostalgic I feel: the lights used in Israel, the land, the desert feels different, the proximity with nature feels different. You feel so close to the food, the figs and the apricots and the nuts you’re eating. It’s just so emotionally moving,” she continued.

Additionally, Birthright values the personal connections participants foster while in Israel, especially the ones with fellow diaspora Jews on the trip. During the ten-day trip, participants are assigned to permanent bus-groups based on geographical origin so they connect with the friends made in Israel once they return home.

“People begin to view Israel not only as the homeland, but as the place where they met and shared experiences with new people and new friends who they have maintained relationships for a long time,” said Chazen.

Birthright participants are also given the opportunity to interact with Israeli Jews, including Israeli soldiers, on the trip. This helps diaspora Jews form personal relationships within the country and help the way in which participants view Israel and Judaism when they return home, according to Chazen.

“Soldiers, who are our age, who have the same insecurities, same dreams for the future, who are serving in Israel, don’t really believe they are serving the government of Israel, but rather they are serving Jews worldwide. Then there’s the question, ‘What am I doing in the Jewish community?’ [These] question our responsibilities and obligations to the community,” said Chazen.

The most essential component of Birthright, according to Chazen, is the “tie in” sessions. In these sessions participants reflect on topics such as “how I relate to Israel,” “how Israel relates to me” and “being the other in the diaspora.” By taking part in these reflections, participants are forced to conceptualize what they have experienced on their journey and how they can apply that newfound knowledge to their lives, according to Chazen.

“In our busy lives, we don’t set aside time to actually reflect on how we’re being impacted by our experiences. But on Birthright, participants are asked to sit back and think really hard on what changes they are undergoing,” said Chazen.

Although Birthright does pose an idealistic image of cultural reintroduction for Jews in the diaspora, the program especially fails to address the struggle diaspora Jews face in participate in conventional diaspora-Jew activities (e.g.,engaging in Israeli related political activities or sending their children to Jewish day-care), according to to Chazen.

“In Israel, you can be Jewish without these impediments because every part of your Jewish experience is just part of your daily life. You don’t have to dedicate extra time or resources to being Jewish,” said Chazen.

“Jewish life in the diaspora is difficult. We are facing competing demands on our time and self definition. We are not only Jews; we are Americans,” she continued.

In order to help maintain the traditions and lessons learned in Israel, Birthright recently created a program called Birthright Next. The new program guides Birthright participants through their lives in the diaspora. For instance, the program works to organize Shabbat (the Jewish day of rest) get-togethers, plan return trips to Israel and connect Birthright participants to one another.