Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Birthright Issues

Garnel Ironheart has a post about Birthright Israel's success or lack thereof. A new study shows that almost half of B.I. participants (44%) don't engage in any Jewish activities after they come back. Garnel is even more pessimistic, saying he doubts that even the most committed members of the study (5% participate in 5 Jewish activities or more after coming back) are engaging in religious activities (the example he gives is morning minyan).

First, I think that he's cherry-picking his example-- morning minyan is an activity that Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism do not really emphasize. Even for Conservative Jews, who do have more of an emphasis on morning prayers, depending on your circumstances-- location from shul, school requirements, etc., morning minyan may simply be impossible. A better religious ritual to look at for a simple baseline would be one that is a little less arduous to fulfill-- making it more about personal choice and the person deciding, from their own motivation, that it's something they want to do. Say, lighting Shabbos candles, hosting a seder, or going to Friday night or morning services on Shabbat.

Also, I think it's a mistake to only consider the religious component of Jewish life in whether we determine Birthright to be successful-- as I understand it, the original goal was simply to have young Jews connect more to their Jewish identity, and, presumably, to Israel, Zionism, and the Jewish people in general, none of which can necessarily be measured through religious activities (or "activities" generally). I also think there's a legitimate argument in claiming that Jewish identity is more complex than merely one's religious behavior-- i.e., more religious Jews are not de facto "better" or "more serious" Jews. (I do not expect Orthodox Jews to agree with this perspective, but the beauty of my perspective is that that's ok.)

Moving on to Birthright, I have a few thoughts.

Part of the problem with Birthright is that this generation (people around my age, twentysomethings, and younger) has the capacity to be incredibly materialistic and superficial-- a behavior that is reinforced everyday through media, technology, and everything being shoved at them under the general rubric of "youth culture." This can then be exacerbated by absentee parents who are clueless about how to communicate with, or show affection to, their kids, aside from buying them ever-more-stuff or giving them free rein over their behavior and activities, regardless of whether they are making smart or particularly good decisions.

I wouldn't mind a free trip to Israel, but frankly I'm not interested in going with a bunch of strangers I'm likely to have nothing in common with aside from Jewish parents. In my early teens I went on a student tour to Australia and New Zealand. I was interested in sightseeing and learning more about the local culture; most of my "peers" were interested in getting drunk, buying drugs, and having sex with anyone that seemed the remotest bit interested. (One kid got offended when I told him I would never try heroin and accused me of being "closed-minded.") Needless to say, I did not have the best time.

The real issue is that Birthright is trying to justify itself to the parents of the kids who go on its trips, as its their goodwill that help the organization sustain itself-- but it's the kids who are actually going. I suspect Birthright does quite a bit of tightrope walking and doublespeaking when it gives its pitch to different audiences-- they might tell the parents they'll get to see a kibbutz and go the Wailing wall, experience a Shabbos, etc--not only are these fairly unidimensional experiences, which you would not EXPECT to appeal to everyone, they are also nostalgic, superficial representations of what Judaism in Israel has to offer. It's a postcard pitch. At the same time, to hook the kids, they chat up how awesome the bars are, how hot army girls are, etc. More postcards.

In both cases, they're giving very superficial pitches-- we can all agree that Israel is more than just Tel Aviv night clubs or Jerusalem cholent. The size of the organization means they have to try to attract everyone, which also means their standards-- for activities, for staff, and for participants-- suffer. No one is holding them to a higher standard and demanding more.

A much more productive and worthwhile way of doing this would be to try to find different ways of experiencing Israeli and Jewish life, thought and culture (because no, I don't think that merely taking them to Mea Shearim or Mercaz Harav is going to get them a lot of takers) that are actually appealing to young people on an intellectual and personal level, rather than trying to get them to associate Israel with a vapid "good times" tourist experience. If you offer substance and look for people that are serious about it, you get serious takers.

Of course, that's also a lot more work, and wouldn't guarantee the massive turnouts or media presence that Birthright uses to tout its "success."

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Swing and a Miss

I was never good at baseball. Not only couldn't I hit the ball, occaisonally I also forgot to hang on to the bat. This culminated in one memorable PE when I accidentally let go of the aforementioned ball-hitting instrument and amazingly managed to brain the gym teacher. (Silver lining: I got to sit out the rest of the game.)

I happened to catch the O'Reilly Factor this afternoon, and it sort of reminded me of my baseball skills. Except Bill's mistakes seemed to be closer to hanging onto the bat too long and smacking yourself in the face.

First, Bill wasted some air (and air time) mumbling about Craigslist being the "top internet conduit for child prostitution." Nothing specific (that would be too much work), but Mr. Bill was very insistent in letting people know that some Sheriff is going after Craigslist to try and take them down.

Whoops. Either Bill's got some bone to pick with Craigslist or his researchers dropped the ball. Just saying, you'd think in a 30-second swipe claiming Craigslist is essentially an e-pimp that you might want to mention the fact that they are now apparently working hard to eliminate it-- and succeeding.

Wait, it gets better. Now Bill's talking to a Venezuelan actress talking about how crazy Hugo Chavez is. Among other things, she mentioned his antisemitism. Bill, for some bizarre reason, seems to be playing devil's advocate on this one. "Why do you say he's antisemitic? Can we have some examples?" The woman seems to stumble slightly- "He doesn't like Israel, he's friends with Iran... Two synagogues have been trashed lately, etc..." Wow, thanks, lady. Thanks to your well-meaning but tongue-tied commentary, people that haven't heard about Chavez's antisemitism are going to think you're exaggerating.

Hey, Bill. Let me help your interns out. Hugo. Chavez. Giant. Douchebag.

No thanks necessary, Bill. Just start sending me my researcher checks.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Oh Israel, you are so hilarious.

First, Shimon Peres confirmed suspicions that he is, in fact, everyone's senile old Jewish great-uncle in a spectacular two-fer: Not only did he totally miscount how many US Presidents were around between 1948 and 2008 (hint- there is a world of difference between 7 and 11), he also managed to simultaneously bore and horrify onlookers with a rambling, incoherent anecdote about how Abraham Lincoln supposedly was "totally pro-Israel."

That's right, despite the fact that Zionism did not exist in the 1860s and that Lincoln died 80 years before the state was founded, Peres is trying to count him as "one of ours."

Haaretz has more:

In his speech, Peres also said that president Abraham Lincoln once promised his Jewish "doctor," Isachar Zacharie, to support the establishment of a Jewish state. Peres did not invent Zacharie, but- how shall we put this gently- there are several versions of this story. It seems that one of Lincoln's acquaintances did indeed tell him about an idea to establish a state for the Jews in the Land of Israel, and Lincoln replied that the option was worthy of consideration. He added incidentally that he had respect for the Jews, since his podiatrist was Jewish.

In actuality, Zacharie was not a medical doctor. In England and the U.S. you can treat foot problems without being a physician, and Zacharie was in fact an English Jew.

Let me get this straight: the big claim to fame here is that Lincoln supposedly made a noncommittal (and totally unfulfillable) promise to his Jewish podiatrist?. His unlicensed, Jewish podiatrist, no less. I told this story at someone's Shabbos dinner and the guy across from me seriously did a spit-take, which was impressive given that he was eating tuna salad at the time.

Not only does Haaretz point out that the story is unprovable apocrypha, I feel someone must also ask the all-important "so what?" question- unless the point here is to demonstrate that even antebellum US Presidents had Jewish physicians who bugged them about Israel and who got patronizing pats on the head to get them to shut up about it. This is like when your alter kocker relatives start twisting your ear about how many Jewish Nobel Prize winners there were, or claiming, without any justification, that other famous people were Jewish, half-Jewish, had Jewish friends, liked Jewish foods, or maybe just had an affinity for beards. When the task at hand is playing psuedo-historical Jewish geography, any connection, no matter how dubious, is fair game.

But wait, last week was a really great one for weird Israel news. We all remember the trials and tribulations Jerusalem has suffered the past few years as its gay residents, shameless heretics as they are, have tried to organize pride parades through the capital of the Jewish people (which they apparently lost their citizenship to when they decided to head off the hetero-derech). The Orthodox have not been happy about and have continually voiced this dissent in that most timeless form of political discourse, burning neighborhood trash cans. A while ago a delightful irony (which, IMO, made it all-but-certain that God was secretly rooting for the gays) came up: it turns out the plastic bins release carcinogenic smoke when ignited. The haredi mobs were in fact poisoning their own families and neighborhoods in their mad dash to let their gay bretheren know just how much ahavat yisrael they felt for them.

Now, the police and government have repeatedly made tough statements like "mob rule will not be tolerated" and the like. However this story shows the truth of the matter. Pride is coming up again and as the gays prepare to unleash the rainbow hordes on the city of gold, how has the local government chosen to respond? Will they be reaching out to the haredi community to urge leaders to rein in their hothead activists? Will they put more cops on the streets to enforce order? Just how will they solve this ongoing dilemma?

The answer is stunning in its simplicity. Or is that... stupidity?

The Jerusalem Municipality has replaced dozens of plastic garbage bins with noncombustible metal ones, this after recurring ultra-Orthodox riots in protest of the annual Gay Pride Parade have cost the city more than a million shekels over the past five years.

Yeah, replace their trash cans. Way to show them who's boss. They'll think twice before they disturb the peace again. (And such a sturdy material, too! I know if there's a riot going on, one thing I want to make sure of is that the mob has plenty of lightweight, hard, weapons to throw and smash things with.) Who paid for those replacement cans, by the way? I'm guessing it's not the bozos who necessitated the "switch."

The Jerusalem Municipality. Run by idiots, sucking up to idiots.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Apologies to some, face smacks to others

It seems I owe an apology to Argentina. Long associated with providing a relaxing Club-Med style vacation spot to former Nazis from Eichmann to the recently-discovered Heim, the country took a small step towards redeeming itself last week when its government gave Bishop "too busy to fact-check the Holocaust" Williamson ten days to leave its grassy plains or be unceremoniously deported. Williamson departed for his native shores of England (if he's smart, he'll stay clear of Germany, which seems to be just itching to make an example of him).

Pathetically, right as Argentina was trying to clean up its image, the Vatican continued to shoot itself in the foot, formally re-admitting the Society of St. Pius, Williamson's schismatic order, even as Haaretz and a Jewish newspaper in Antwerp were releasing antisemitic quotes posted on the Order's website in five different languages (because even though they're hate-mongers, they like to encourage diversity). As reporters were rushing to save copies of such gems as "heads of Jewry have for centuries conspired methodically and out of an undying hatred against the Catholic name" and calling Jews "the enemy of man, whose secret weapon is the leaven of the Pharisees which is hypocrisy," the Society was doing what cowards and two-faced weasels have always done when confronted with their own bull- purging their site to sanitize it ahead of any investigation and to pave the way for their official Papal OK.

For those keeping score at home, this means that the Society of Pius is too antisemitic for Argentina, former stomping groups of Eichmann, Alois Brunner, and Klaus Barbie, but apparently just antisemitic enough for the Vatican. Good to know.

But wait! The Pope has now said that he is not "satisfied" with Williamson's lame pseudo-apology (which apparently has driven him into the arms of David Irving- brilliant move there, Dick. That'll totally convince everyone of the fairmindedness with which you're willing to consider the evidence). According to Vatican sources, not only does Williamson not go far enough in recanting his denial, his statement was also lacking that personal touch:

A Vatican spokesman pointed out that the apology, which was posted on a Catholic Web site, was not addressed to Pope Benedict XVI.

Yeah, doesn't it just totally suck when someone pretends to apologize without even bothering to address the offended parties?

The real problem with the whole Williamson scandal is that the Vatican is trying to hang the Bishop out to dry as the sacrificial lamb for the Holocaust denial stuff while letting the rest of the Lackies of Pius pass under the radar. Infuriatingly, the media seems to be falling for it. Williamson isn't some lone nut, and the problems with Friends of Pius goes much deeper-- they number an estimated 600,000 followers. People should be asking questions about how off the wall their theology is-- and what lame justifications Benedict is claiming to support his bone-headed decision to let them rejoin the Church. (For the record, letting Williamson back in and then threatening to not let him work as a "full Bishop" unless he accepts the Shoah as historical isn't just ass-backward, it's also ridiculously stupid. So in the interim he'll be what, a only-quasi-ostracized bishop on vacation?)

Note to Pope Benny- healing rifts in the church at everyone else's expense-- and your own supposed moral authority-- certainly isn't winning you any points with me.

But then again, I'm just a hypocritical Pharisee. Why would you care what I think?

Edit: It keeps getting better:

Williamson, who belongs to a traditionalist Catholic sect called the Society of St. Pius X, was excommunicated after he was ordained in an unauthorized ceremony 20 years ago.

Correct me if I'm wrong, oh infallible Benedict, but under Church rules, doesn't this mean that even if Williamson recanted his BS views that he is not even qualified to serve as a PRIEST, much less a Bishop? Whatever happened to God's Rottweiler? You wouldn't let Sinead O'Connor be a Bishop just because she called herself one, why does this fool get special treatment?

There's something very weird going on here.