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Birthright Israel Wants You to Be Ultra-Orthodox

How’s this for rank cronyism?

Birthright Israel, the program that gives every Jewish young adult in North America a free trip to Israel, also funds ‘aftercare’ programs back home under the auspices of Birthright-NEXT meant to keep newly-Jewishly-enthused Birthright participants in the Jewish communal fold. Birthright has so far shown little success in aftercare and retention. Most participants barely participate in Jewish communal life after returning from the greatest free vacation many of them will ever have. Of those participants who have already finished college, only about half participate in any measurable way, and "participation" can mean as little as attending one program several years ago. A recent study commissioned by Birthright emphasizes the need for varied programming conducted in small intimate settings by many organizations in each locale. To achieve this, many different organizations need funding. But that is not what Birthright does. Indeed, in the New York City area, home to the largest concentration of young Jews in North America, Birthright focuses its funding on a small handful of organizations. One of them, the Jewish Enrichment Center, gets a heavily disproportionate amount of that funding.

The JEC is an ultra-Orthodox founded and run outreach center, started as part of the Kiruv Movement – in other words, the JEC was conceived and birthed by Jewish missionaries out to make you ultra-Orthodox.  Beginning in 2002, the JEC was the NYC "outreach post" of Ohr Somayach, the right wing ultra-Orthodox kiruv yeshiva and missionary network. So why is Birthright-NEXT funding ultra-Orthodox missionary activity?

Michael Steinhardt. That’s right. Jewish philanthropy’s uber-secularist is behind Birthright-NEXT’s over-endowed ultra-Orthodox missionaries. Steinhardt makes a donation each year to Birthright-NEXT earmarked specifically for the JEC. How much does the JEC get? According to the Forward:

The group was given $1.4 million last year, according to Birthright Israel NEXT’s executive director, Rabbi Daniel Brenner. In 2007, the last year for which the Forward was able to attain tax returns, the JEC received $1.87 million. By contrast, that year, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life was granted a total of $547,516 for programming nationwide.

Why is Steinhardt doing this? Has he suddenly gone native? Is he eating glatt kosher and wrapping tefillin, doing Jewish line dances with sweaty bearded men in frock coats and fedoras or uttering fervent prayers at rabbis’ graves? Nope. This has nothing to do with religion. Steinhardt is putting millions into ultra-Orthodox missionaries because a close friend of his family’s wants him to. Who is that close friend? Rebecca Sugar, who has been close to the Steinhardt family for decades. And guess what job Ms. Sugar holds? She’s the New York City director of Birthright-NEXT. This cronyism might be forgivable – if you could overlook stealth missionary activity offered up with the imprimatur of the Jewish community, and if it didn’t hurt other non-Orthodox programs. But it does hurt them, siphoning off funds and participants and killing competition. But it’s even worse than that. With all its money, killer Web site and huge staff (fourteen strong, last time I checked), the JEC is, like much else associated with Birthright and Birthright-Next, a failure. In March, the JTA reported Birthright’s retention issues, before Birthright’s heavily disproportionate funding of the JEC was known:

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.

Why the "little effort to communicate"? Perhaps because all NYC organizations involved with Birthright-NEXT are cash-strapped, except for one – the Steinhardt-and-crony-endowed JEC. But there is one area the JEC does succeed in – furthering the goals of Ohr Somayach and other ultra-Orthodox missionary organizations. These organizations get access to Birthright alumni through Ohr Somayach’s proxy, the JEC. Its overall success rate might be poor, but those alumni the JEC does "succeed" with have a much higher chance of owning a black fedora or a wig than your average twenty-something Jewish New Yorker. And that is exactly what Ohr Somayach wants. This is not the end of Birthright’s troubles. Just last month, Birthright hired the disgraced PR flackery 5WPR to represent it. 5W is notorious for impersonating critics of the corrupt glatt kosher meatpacker Agriprocessors in a bid to discredit them. The victims of this sockpuppetry included Conservative Jewish leader Rabbi Morris Allen. This was big enough news at the time to headline Gawker and make page one of the New York Times, but it wasn’t big enough to stop Birthright from hiring 5WPR. Perhaps that is because 5W’s head, Ronn Torossian, is closely associated with Israel’s political and religious right wing, and supports many of the same causes and neo-con politicians domestically that Steinhardt does. Birthright is clearly troubled, and that’s a shame. It should be and could be a success. But it won’t be a success as long as the key criteria for getting funding are cronyism and ultra-Orthodoxy.

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