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."

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