I s Jewish Peoplehood, a sense that all Jews are connected and responsible for one another, an archaic notion irrelevant to modern Jews? Are young Jewish adults in the vanguard of a shift away from Jewish values of communal connection and concern? Although secular research underscores this concern, in the Jewish community, recent developments suggest a different scenario.

General survey data of American young adults indicates that they view fellow members of Generation Y as more concerned with becoming rich and famous than with being communal or spiritual. They are, these surveys suggest, a group of individualists who worry about money and possessions and are, seemingly, blasé about their relationships and about the needs of others.

To the extent that young Jewish adult share the outlook of this generation, the prospects for fostering Jewish Peoplehood seem bleak. But how, then, do we explain the success of the American Jewish community’s largest-ever social experiment, Taglit-Birthright Israel, a collective experience whose key reward is in the currency of Jewish Peoplehood?

Since its inception in late 1999, Birthright has provided educational trips for more than 125,000 North American young adults. Almost universally, participants report that their trips are extraordinary experiences. When they return, they talk about what they have learned about the land of Israel, but mostly they reflect on how it feels to share a connection with other Jews.

The program provides young adults, whose backgrounds vary dramatically in terms of prior contact with Jewish life, with an opportunity to feel that they are a part of the Jewish People. Unlike the ritualized Passover seder, where Jews reenact their people’s historic journey to the promised land, Birthright Israel is an actual experience. Even among young adults immersed in the 24/7 world of text messaging and computer-mediated social networking, it seems that there is a thirst for genuine interaction and experience. Birthright allows participants to connect the dots of their nascent Jewish identities.

Evidence that the active ingredient underlying Birthright Israel is a sense of connection (a key element of Jewish Peoplehood) comes from systematic evaluation data about the program. On multiple surveys, the dominant response from participants is that the experience felt like a “journey to their Jewish roots” and “a group Jewish experience.” The opportunity to live for ten days with a group of fellow Jews, and to do so in the land of Israel, alters their social identities. It makes being part of a Jewish group not simply a religious statement, but also an affirmative statement of Jewish identity.

Birthright Israel provides a taste of the honey of Jewish Peoplehood. For ten days, it creates a cultural island that allows participants to see themselves as part of something larger than themselves.

Central to producing this transformative effect is the mifgash (encounter) that is part of each Birthright experience. The mifgash involves a group of Israeli peers joining the Diaspora youth for all or part of each trip. Given the program’s exclusive focus on 18 to 26 year olds, the Israeli peers are typically soldiers. The power of the mifgash is reflected in the fact that it alters the identities of Israeli participants as well those of Diaspora Jews; they, too, come away feeling not just that they are Israelis doing service for the State of Israel, but that they are also linked by history and culture to a larger group of Jews.

Those who study social identity formation recognize that it does not take much for individuals to identify with a group. What social psychologists call “minimal group identification” can, however, have powerful effects. Although ten days is not, by the standards of most educational initiatives, a lengthy period, by the criteria of what it takes to form a sense of groupness, it is a very long time.

One outcome of Birthright Israel participants’ enhanced sense of being part of the Jewish People is that they return from Israel highly motivated to recruit others to participate. The program both fosters Jewish social networks and expands these networks by leveraging them to engage new participants. The more who go on the ten-day trips, the more applicants seek subsequent trips. As one indicator of interest in the program, summer registration for Birthright Israel opened in North America in mid-February of this year. Within 24 hours, nearly 15,000 applicants registered to participate. An additional 25,000 completed applications over the next two weeks for one of the 20,000 coveted slots expected to be available.

The as-yet unresolved question about Birthright Israel is whether alumni will maintain their newly-stimulated identification with the Jewish People. It’ possible that feeling a sense of Peoplehood is a transitory phenomenon — a fond memory but not a lasting element of their identities. When participants return home, almost universally, they report being attitudinally changed and, particularly when compared to others who have not been on a trip, it is clear that they are fundamentally changed as well. But these same, highly motivated participants find it difficult to enact their identities by becoming active in Jewish communities where they live or go to school.

There are exceptions, and those who have gone on trips with members of their own communities (campus and otherwise) are more likely to find and join a Jewish community when they return. But most are unable to find a community that is as compelling as what they experienced as part of a group traveling in Israel. Herein lies the real opportunity.

Birthright Israel provides a taste of the honey of Jewish Peoplehood. For ten days, it creates a cultural island that allows participants to see themselves as part of something larger than themselves. It provides educational experiences that are cognitively rich, emotionally stimulating and behaviorally engaging. The program provides a framework for identification with the Jewish People and, at least on a small scale, opportunities to engage in this identity.

The level of interest in the program is both a proximal and a distal indicator of its success. In the immediate sense, it indicates the success of program educators to engage participants. In the long term, if the program continues to attract a large stream of new recruits, it increases the likelihood that participants will have peer communities to join once they return. If the program can send close to 50,000 young adults from North America each year, it will enable more than 50 percent of that cohort of Jews to travel to Israel by their mid-twenties. It will have made an educational experience in Israel normative for American Jews and, perhaps, a tipping point will have been reached where being part of the Jewish People becomes fully expressed.

Long ago, the schools of Hillel and Shammai debated whether study or action should have primacy. Clearly, the two are intertwined. In the Diaspora, Jewish education has floundered, perhaps because the study of Jewish tradition is meaningless without enactment and interaction. The success of Birth­right Israel derives from incorporating multiple forms of learning, and from its central message of group identification.

Furthermore, Birthright Israel is successful because it allows young adult Jews to experience life as a part of a Jewish community. In an era in which individualism is privileged over the communal, the behavioral lesson of Jewish Peoplehood taught by Birthright Israel is, perhaps, revolutionary. It is, however, the essence of what Jewish tradition is about, and it provides a path for a new generation of adults to find meaningful connection in a confusing world.

Leonard Saxe is Professor of Social Policy and Jewish Community Research at Brandeis University and Director of the Steinhardt Social Research Institute. He is co-author of a new book, Ten Days of Birthright Israel: A Journey in Young Adult Identity.