Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Birthright: A Waste of Money

A brainchild of one of the Bronfmans, Birthright is a program that gives young Jewish North Americans who have never been to Israel a free trip to the Holy Land. The idea is:
Taglit-Birthright Israel provides the gift of first time, peer group, educational trips to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26. Taglit-Birthright Israel's founders created this program to send thousands of young Jewish adults from all over the world to Israel as a gift in order to diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world; to strengthen the sense of solidarity among world Jewry; and to strengthen participants' personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people.
In theory, it's a great idea. Take Jewish kids with an imperfect connection to their Judaism, take them to the Land of the Jews and attach them to their heritage. Then when they come home, these youths will feel more of an attachment to our people and be more involved for the rest of their lives. Does it work? Apparently not.
SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) -- Nearly 160,000 young Jews from North America have taken part in Taglit-Birthright Israel, a 10-day free Israel trip aimed at revving up their Jewish identities.
Of those no longer in college, only half have attended any Jewish event since their return.
That’s one of the findings of “
Tourists, Travelers and Citizens,” a new report by the Cohen Center of Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. The report is based on interviews and online surveys of 1,534 Birthright alumni in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto, the four largest Jewish communities in North America.
According to the survey, 44% participate in no Jewish activites after returning home. Only 5% participate in 5 or more. I don't know what the definition of a Jewish activity is but I'm really willing to bet showing up at 7 am on Monday morning with tefillin at the ready for davening isn't one of them.
Should this be a surprise to anyone? I don't really think so. A couple of years ago I ran into a Birthright tour group in Israel. The crowd looked oddly familiar, composed of the usual young men with a two day growth of stubble and Roots sweatshifts and the usual young girls clad in tons of gold and outfits that would make the Russian hookers on the Tel Aviv boardwalk blush with embarassment. I spoke with them for a while to get a sense of their day. Yes, they'd gone to the museum and taken a hike someone but what they were really looking forward to was the pub crawl that evening.
The true measure of the distinctiveness of the program is how interchangeable it is. If Birthright agendae could be copied on a trip to Italy or England, then it's not really anything special. It's just a free trip for some Jewish kids, the majority of whom have parents who could afford to pay, to a far off country where they can meet foreigners and try new beers.
The alumni surveyed in all four cities said they would like to be more involved than they were in Jewish life. Most preferred small gatherings to large, anonymous “meat market” Jewish events.
“They’re happy to eat free food and drink free beer at those big events, but they don’t feel it meets their needs to find Jewish community,” Chertok reports.
Respondents also said they were interested in learning more about Judaism and Jewish culture and history, including Hebrew, but were wary of outreach groups with a perceived “religious” agenda. They also wanted a network of friends to share those experiences as a way of re-creating the camaraderie they felt on their Israel trips.

Right, they want to be proud of being Jewish but none of that old time "religion" thank you. But if you were to ask these young folk what Judaism is, they would most likely respond: it's a religion. They reject that which makes one Jewish: commitment to a social and legal code given to us by God at Mount Sinai. But then they worry about assimilation and marrying Jewish. So what is it they're asking for?
“Birthright shows people that being part of a group, a Jewish group, is a meaningful experience,” report co-author Leonard Saxe says. “They come back hungry for that, and most communities don’t provide them with a set of those experiences.”
They come back hungry all right. Hungry for the next free meal.


David said...

Interesting, but I think it leaves out some fairly important information. What's the rate of involvement of similarly situated Jewish youth who did not go on a "Birthright" trip? I don't think one can measure the program's success without knowing that.

Also, since part of the purpose of the program is "to diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world," it might also be worthwhile to ask whether (and to what extent) the alumni would categorize themselves as supporters of Israel.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Both good points and unfortunately neither was raised in the article.

Interestingly, there is a separate Birthright for frum kids, I guess they skip the pub crawl and have night seder instead.

What would really be interesting is to compare attitudes vis a vis Israel in both groups before and after the trip.

Friar Yid (not Shlita) said...

I agree with David that one issue here is what is the measure of success-- and I think there are a lot of different ways to measure it, in part because there are a lot of different issues affecting Jewish youth these days, especially in America. (For the record, I don't consider intermarriage to be a primary determinant-- or disqualifier-- of Jewish identity. I am among the most Jewishly educated and committed in my family in the past three generations, have every intention of raising Jewish children, yet do not give a fig about halacha and am seriously dating a non-Jew.)

I also don't buy your line about the commitment to halacha being the single thing which makes you Jewish. Not only does this invalidate everyone except the Orthodox (and within them, probably only certain groups) from being "authentically" Jewish, it also seems an unreasonable standard to hold these kids to, given that many of them probably come from families that stopped being Orthodox decades before they were even born.

They reject that which makes one Jewish: commitment to a social and legal code given to us by God at Mount Sinai. But then they worry about assimilation and marrying Jewish. So what is it they're asking for?

The simple answer is that Birthright is trying to appeal to too many people, including a heck of a lot of superficial, materialistic parents (who care about assimilation) and young people (who care about bars). So not only do they appear to have a schizophrenic disconnect between their philosophy and their program, they're starting from an unimpressive place to begin with.

It's really an example of the dumbing-down effect. If Birthright was more interested in quality over quantity, they could make a much better program-- one that focused on creating intellectually and personally/spiritually appealing and engaging experiences and targetted serious participants to go on their trips-- but that would be a lot more work and wouldn't get them as much attention or as big a turnout.

I have a longer response up on my blog.

Ari said...

I gotta say, 55% of the peoples that go on Birthright continue to attend Jewish activities is awesome.

That's nearly 90,000 Jews participating in Jewish activities who otherwise would not have . . .

Honestly Frum said...

I have spoken to a few people who went on Birth Right and although some of them did not actively continue in so called "Jewish Life" it gave many of them a sense of Jewish Identity. There is a fascinating hesped to Herzel that was written by Rav Avraham Elyah Kaplan a student of the Alter of Slabodka (it can be found in his sefer "B' Ikvot Hayirah", a great read) in it he says "Hu lo limdunu torah, v' hu lo imdunu yirah, aval hu limdunu lomar B' ahva ivri anochi". His point is that although Herzel didn't offer us anything in the realm of "frumkeit" or yiras shamayim he taught us to stand up be proud Jews and proud of our identity. I think the same is true of birthright. A majority of these kids come back with a sense of Jewish Identity from this trip and it is more of a connection than anything else they would have gotten.

Garnel Ironheart said...

My father loves to say that the Aibishter works in mysterious ways and He is not restricted in which tools He can use.
He tried to spur us to return to Zion through the religious Chovevei Zion and no one went. So He turned to the last person on Earth that anyone would every suspect of having a proud Jewish identity and look what happened.

Honestly Frum said...

One correction, it was "hu limdunu lomar B' GA'AVAH Ivri Anochi" Proudly.

Shunamit said...

I converted to Judaism immediately after graduating from college, and due to a strong personal desire and considerable arm-twisting from the beit din, went to study at Hebrew U that summer. I paid for some of it, and my non-Jewish parents paid for some. I spent 6-8 hours a day learning Hebrew and went to sem classes in my "spare" time. I ate a lot of bread and yogurt.

It was the most wonderful year of my life. I ended up meeting a traditional-minded boy who became observant, and I never went back to the States. That was over 20 years ago. I doubt that anything can be done to influence assimilated American Jewry. As one of the commentators here puts it, avoiding intermarriage, the absolute minimum of allegiance, is, for them, tantamount to racism.

Most young people are pretty shallow, with certain notable exceptions, and they haven't gotten any deeper. As Rebbi Nachman says, "The main thing is desire" and you cannot convince most people that something non-material is WORTH desiring.

Better fewer candidates, but a more intensive program. "Pub hopping", my gosh. At least my "born-Jewish" kids have the advantage of being native Israelis.