Two recent articles join the chorus of Jewish publications wondering if Birthright Israel is a good thing. Birthright, in case you’ve been living under a rock for a decade, is a program that brings Jewish 18-26 year olds to Israel for free for a 10-day trip in the hopes of countering assimilation and alienation among young Jews, especially North Americans. Follow-up surveys have found that Birthright alumni are demonstrably more likely to feel connected to Israel, and Judaism than unaffiliated young adults who haven’t gone on a birthright trip. But Birthright hasn’t been around that long, and the jury’s still out on the serious long term effects of a birthright tour of Israel. Understandably, many of the major Birthright haters are those with vested interests in bringing teenagers to Israel for longer trips when they’re younger (mainly those who run summer trips through BBYO, USY, NFTY, Young Judea, HaBonim, Camp Ramah, etc). An article from PresenTense magazine that weighs the Birthright pros and cons quotes Yossi Katz, a teacher at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, an eight week program for high school students.
Katz’s school specifically targets the same unaffiliated Jews as birthright does, since it is one of a number of long-term (anywhere from six- to twelve-week) Israel programs dedicated to providing a comprehensive Jewish education to high school students. Such schools have suffered a dropoff in applications in recent years because, according to Katz, parents of Jewish teenagers at public schools are opting to forgo a high school Israel experience for their kids in lieu of birthright. “Six years ago, everyone would be asking about security when I would come the US to recruit. Now, frankly, I haven’t had one person address security with me.” Instead, Katz said, “parents are asking why they should spend $7,000 to send their kids on my program when their kids can go for free on birthright instead.” In the minds of both parents and students, Katz contended, birthright seems a free and fast fix to an Israel connection without the need for longer engagement.
Now, I went on AMHSI, and I know Yossi Katz. I agree absolutely that 8 weeks when I was 16 were infinitely more powerful than 10 days would be for me this year. That said, I think he may be skirting the issue. Look at his quote again:
“Parents are asking why they should spend $7,000 to send their kids on my program when their kids can go for free on birthright instead.”
Seven thousand dollars is a huge amount of money. And when you pit something that costs $7000 against something that’s free, it’s no wonder that people are forgoing a high school trip for a free college experience. Everything is expensive these days. College tuition is astronomical. Parents who are looking at upwards of $50,000 per year of college understandably want to cut a few corners in the years leading up to university, and when there is a promise of a free Israel trip in the future, it’s reasonable for them to want to skip out on Israel expenses when their kids are in high school.
Birthright can’t be as effective as the other major players in the Israel trip market, but those players are losing out anyway, as they’re forced to raise costs higher and higher, effectively locking out big portions of the middle class (scholarships notwithstanding). The money is no small thing. Additionally, Birthright’s diversity could work against it. As an article in the Columbia Current points out, Birthright may have a GLBT trip, and a trip for people who like hiking, but ultimately so many trips with so many tangential missions means a slim or non-existent sense of what birthright is really all about:
Traveling to Israel with a peer group may be inspirational, and having Shabbat dinner with friends might be fun, but these experiences are incomplete. They make people enjoy participating in Jewish activities and having Jewish friends, and they might influence people to feel that marrying a Jew is important, but somewhere along the line Birthright missed a step: Why is any of this important? Why is it important to be involved in a Jewish community? Why is it important to raise Jewish children? Why care about Israel? Most important of all-in a society largely devoid of anti-Semitism-why be Jewish in America today? All of the programmatic successes are pointless without a raison d’etre. In this sense, Birthright is not a big idea. It is a big, successful program, but it does not offer a compelling reason for people to be Jewish.
I’m not sure that’s exactly right. Birthright may provide personal experiences that give individuals a compelling reason to be Jewish. You may have, for instance, a gay college student going on the GLBT trip just because it’s free, bonding with other Jewish GLBT young adults, and for the first time feeling that he has a place in the Jewish community, a sense of what it means to be a Jew and why he wants to stay that way, all because of Birthright. We can hardly expect every Jewish young adult to be compelled by one specific reason to be Jewish, but we should expect birthright to at least make serious attempts to cover that ground in a way they aren’t so far. Recently, Birthright launched a program aimed at keeping alum more involved in their communities after they return from Israel. With $25 million to launch this new initiative, birthright NEXT, one can be assume of a moderate level of success. But if it’s going to ensure long term viability and success I think Birthright should take two steps. First, it should fund high school students who are going on organized Israel trips of their own. Katz suggests this in the PresenTense article:
“Originally, birthright weighed offering every young Jew from the age of sixteen a free round-trip airplane ticket and ten paid days in Israel which could be used on any quality recognized Israel program,” Katz said. “We could use that money to send the student to Alexander Muss or other programs, and it cuts the cost in half.”
If this money could be directed at any organized program (Ramah, NFTY, BBYO etc) then Israel programs are no longer in such direct competition with birthright, and parents considering the longer trips for their kids get a substantial break for the probably-better-quality trip. Second, Birthright needs to sharpen its goal. It needs to ask participants directly what they need to feel that Judaism and Israel are relevant, and it needs to provide that. It needs to ask itself what can make a Birthright trip more effective (hint: it’s not a Birthright Mega-event) and it needs to consider whether alumni programming has any hope of attracting anyone who wouldn’t stay involved anyway. Birthright isn’t a magic pill to cure assimilation and alienation, but it has the capability to do way more than it’s doing now.