Only 4% of participants seriously involved in Jewish community after trip, college.
Birthright Israel was really the idea of the old independent Jewish student movement, the North American Jewish Students Network, which proffered the idea at the plenary session of the General Assembly of Jewish Federations held in Chicago during November 1986.
Network was the American and Canadian affiliate of the World Union of Jewish Students.
I sat on Network's North American executive during that time and was at the GA when we argued for what eventually became Birthright Israel.
What happened is a story onto itself.
Alan E. Oirich, now program director for Shalom TV and then our US executive director, had the idea of taking over the plenary session and arguing for a comprehensive plan to stem assimilation on college campuses. Part of that plan, presented as a series of demands, was that every Jewish high school and college student should get a free trip to Israel. It was framed with the fact that many federations were then refusing to subsidize college students trying to go to Israel on existing programs.
Jacob Davidson (now Jacob Ner David, the husband of Chaviva Ner David, by some counts the first Orthodox female rabbi, and then th eyoungest of us) on the sly managed to get our manifesto printed by the federations' printer and included as page one in the plenary session agenda.
Before the session was gaveled into order, Shoshan Cardin, then the elected head of the federations, came to our table and said, "Okay, boys. Which one of you is speaking."
Alan E. Oirich got the nod. He read the manifesto to the plenary session, adding in brief explanations and supporting facts.
Afterward, we were harangued by Mr. Mandel of the the Cleveland Jewish Federation. He insisted that federation routinely heavily or completely subsidize trips to Israel for high school and college students.
We said that was true of Cleveland – which had a very good reputation – but it was not true of many other federations.
Mandel vehemently objected to that explanation and argued all federations were like Cleveland.
At this point a macher from another federation who was standing near Mandel interjected.
"My federation doesn't subsidize these trips," the macher said. And neither do [several others he mentioned whose names I no longer recall]."
Mandel was shocked.
He asked the other macher if he was sure.
"Yes, I'm sure," the macher answered.
Mandel apologized to us on the spot and then said, I promise you that this will be fixed and that no Jewish student will be denied a visit to Israel due to lack of funding.
That eventually led to Birthright Israel.
But Birthright is not run the way we would have run it.
As it now stands, Birthright Israel takes kids to Israel for free, makes the trips light on study and heavy on sex and fun, and then sends the kids back with no substantial followup to vapid Jewish communities with little to offer Jewishly – unless you count haredi outreach movements, which tend to frown on the sex and the fun aspects of life. Birthright gets little visible bang for the buck. And people are surprised by this?
The Jewish community has no viable, unified secular presence. It has no Jewish Free University, no Jewish Free Online University, no Jewish Service Corps (like a Peace Corps). Its educational and cultural offerings are largely pathetic – when they even exist.
Jewish funders seem to think funding secular groups or events that fife in the face of traditional Judaism in the most crass fashion is the cool, hip thing to do. So have a Passover seder where ham is served on matzo and the seder finished in a daisy chain and you'll probably get funding.
Try to have a series of free webcast lectures dealing with the latest scientific and textual evidence supporting the documentary hypothesis and that evidence's impact on traditional Judaism? Or free webcasts teaching Yiddish or Hebrew? Be prepared to starve.
In the same way, tackle issues that matter but are uncomfortable for funders (like child sexual abuse, for example)? Starve. Run a 'Jewish' website advocating libertine sexuality combined with liberal shellfish and pork eating? Your rent is paid.
There are four or five people I know who could together fix Birthright Israel. None wil be asked. And if we were to approach Birthright, I'm very sure we'd be turned down cold.
Earth to Michael Steinhardt: Top down, 'professional-driven,' Judaism does not work with students. It never has. It never will.
Earth to Michael Steinhardt: You can't have an integrated functioning secular Jewish community without having a – functional secular Jewish community.
In other words, if you want to keep Birthright participants Jewishly involved, there have to be programs for them to be involved in. There also needs to be media for them, like Jewcy, for example.
But you helped kill Jewcy by allowing it to be poorly run, by allowing the person who poorly ran it to fire everyone with talent, and then – after bringing in a federation guy to run it – you sat back as Jewcy became very inside Jewish politics, and very outside the mindset and concerns of the average Birthright participant.
And when that wasn't enough, you pulled out your money and gave the brand and the website to the inside federation guy, guaranteeing that Jewcy may survive – but it won't reach the demographic it was meant to reach, or do what it was meant to do.
Earth to Michael Steinhardt: Want to talk? I'll bring you four or five people with real street cred, people who know from the ground up – not the top down – what needs to be done.
failed [dot] messiah [at] comcast [dot] net.
Alumni Association: 'We Have a Lot of Work to Do'
By Sue Fishkoff (JTA)
San Francisco — 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.
“It means we have a lot of work to do,” says Daniel Brenner, executive director of Birthright Israel NEXT, a national organization that tries to steer alumni toward greater Jewish involvement in their home communities.
The Birthright program was instituted in 2000 by mega-philanthropists concerned about what they perceived as the younger generation’s lack of Jewish involvement. Numerous formal and informal evaluations show participants’ connection to Israel and the Jewish community are enhanced by their trip, but that does not translate into ongoing Jewish involvement, according to the new report.
“Years after their trip, Taglit alumni continue to look more like ‘tourists’ than ‘citizens’ in the Jewish community world,” the report’s authors write. “Although they value their Jewish identities, most have only limited participation in Jewish communal life.”
The report shows that 44 percent of Birthright alumni who are no longer in college have not attended any Jewish program since their return from Israel. A further 39 percent have attended just one or two programs. Only 4 percent have taken part in more than four programs.
Toronto shows the greatest success at keeping this population somewhat engaged, with 63 percent of returnees participating in at least one Jewish event. Report co-author Fern Chertok attributes that to the close-knit nature of Toronto’s Jewish community, which keeps Birthright returnees apprised of a well-planned schedule of Jewish programs.
In New York, where 43 percent of returnees have not attended any Jewish program since their Israel trip, researchers found an array of Jewish offerings but little effort to communicate that information to Birthright alumni. Asked whether they had even heard of a dozen Jewish organizations offering programs for their age, the largest number – 67 percent – said they knew of the JCC Manhattan and the Y’s at 92nd Street and 14th Street, but just 20 percent had attended events there. Other Jewish programs showed even less participation and were lesser known.
Los Angeles showed the greatest number of completely disengaged alumni, with 53 percent saying they had attended no Jewish programs since Israel. San Francisco had higher numbers of alumni taking part in one to four activities – 43 percent and 10 percent, respectively – but just 1 percent who said they attended five or more.
Both California cities are hampered by a lack of good programs, say the report’s authors. Those that exist, particularly “Friday Night Live in L.A.” and the “Bay Area Tribe” and “Late Shabbat” in San Francisco, are high profile and do draw crowds.
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.
“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.”
Birthright NEXT, which has chapters in New York and, as of last year, San Francisco, is taking those tips to heart, Brenner says.
Last fall, the organization launched NEXT Shabbat, which encourages Birthright alumni to host Shabbat meals in their homes. It’s a peer-driven project, Brenner says: Invitees RSVP online, Birthright NEXT provides resources and recipes on its Web site, and it picks up the tab after hosts submit feedback, which often includes posting photos.
So far, Brenner reports, 2,000 such Shabbat dinners have been held in the past six months. The average age of participants is 25, and 65 percent of the hosts said they had never invited people to a Shabbat meal before. In 2009, Brenner projects 70,000 young participants.
“We need to make drastic changes in New York,” he acknowledges. “There are so many alumni here, and just 5 percent say they participate ‘a lot.’ ”
NEXT Shabbat seems to appeal to New Yorkers, he says: About 28 percent of Birthright participants come from the New York area, which also provides about 28 percent of those taking part in NEXT Shabbat meals.
Brenner points out that many young Jews sign up for Birthright just because it’s a free trip.
“They have no intention of doing anything afterwards,” he says. “But if we can meet their real needs, I have no doubt we can help the majority build Jewish community.”
[Hat Tip: Dr. Rofe-Filosof.]