June 5, 2008
Free at last!
Web extra video: Fun and fireworks at the Birthright Israel Mega Event in Jerusalem
Last Sunday night (June 1) in an amphitheatre outside Jerusalem, I had a flash of insight into how to get disaffected Jews excited and involved in Jewish life: Make it free!
I was at something called the Birthright Israel Mega Event. Birthright is the eight-year-old program that has brought more than 170,000 Jewish young people from 53 countries to Israel for 10-day trips, all expenses paid. By most measures it has been a phenomenal success. Kids with no or limited connection to their heritage become deeply attached, or at least intrigued. They form lifelong bonds with peers from other states or other countries. They see the best of Israel having the best of times, and the impression is lasting and positive.
I rode a wave of that enthusiasm Sunday night in Latrun. "Birthright, ARE YOU READY TO PARTY??!!!!" screamed emcee Michael HarPaz to a packed amphitheatre of some 7,500 young people.
Strobe lights raked the stage, giant Star of David-shaped balloon sculptures floated in the breeze, and when the Birthrighters leapt up and screamed "YEAH!!" a series of synchronized fireworks shot out from behind the bandstand and dazzled in the warm, starry night.
Birthright, with an annual budget of $104 million, was created and initially funded by American Jewish mega-philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael and Judy Steinhardt. It now receives major support from the Israeli government, as well as from other private, mostly American Jewish donors. Many of them were seated in the first few rows of the mega-event -- Bronfman, the Steinhardts, Lynn Shusterman and Gary and Karen Winnick, among others. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke, thanking the donors, the emcee thanked the donors, a video featured the donors, the donors took the stage and thanked one another -- for at least 45 minutes, the event recalled that scene in "The King and I" where grateful Siamese come, on bended knee, to honor the benevolent Yul Brynner.
But so what -- they deserve it. And it was in the midst of the thank-a-thon that my epiphany occurred: Why do this just for 20-somethings?
Clearly, the Bronfman/Steinhardt brainchild worked. And a great part of its success has been due to three factors.
First, it is professionally done. Israel, a country that can't seem to organize a line at a bus stop, has managed to shepherd thousands of wild and crazy young people on a meticulously planned itinerary twice a year for 10 days without breaking a sweat.
Second, Birthright gives these Jews something they need at that point in their lives, even if they themselves don't know it.
Finally, it's free. A trip that costs thousands of dollars per participant is handed out like a money-stuffed attaché case on "Deal or No Deal." It doesn't matter if the participant is the child of a single mom working three low-wage jobs or the scion of a Cincinnati ladies' support-hose magnate, your money's no good here.
To summarize: Excellent + Relevant + Free = Huge Success.
It turns out the success of many other Jewish outreach initiatives boils down to this same formula. Think of the new minyans and congregations who don't ask for a dime but offer a great spiritual experience.
Think of Chabad, arguably one of the most successful outreach organizations of any religion. Their services are free, and so is their schnaps.
Think of the scholarships that various communities and schools offer young people for study in Jewish institutions: There is never a lack of applicants.
Finally, think of this very newspaper and Web site, offered at no cost to anyone who takes the trouble to pick it up or click on it.
It turns out that uninspired, unattached, unaffiliated Jews are easy to lure into the fold: Just give them something good for free.
So, my suggestion is, extend the Birthright brand. You want to rock the Jewish world? Tell every 30-something with children their first year of Jewish school tuition is gratis. That's right: one free year of Jewish education to every child -- Call it Schoolright.
How about Campright -- a free week of summer camp for every Jewish teen?
And of course, Prayright -- one year's free temple membership to any Jew, anywhere.
And while we're at it, what's wrong with Dateright -- one year of free membership in the online Jewish dating service of your choice, for any Jew of any age.
I'll stop for a moment to stress I'm not being arch or facetious. The common beef against Jewish institutions is that they don't strive for excellence and that they cost too much. Birthright's mega-philanthropists demanded business-world accountability and performance and they paid for it. In return, they have changed hundreds of thousands of hearts.
With the same level of competence and commitment, the same could be done for young parents in their 30s who never really considered Jewish schools, for parents in their 40s who are too stretched to pay summer camp bills, for singles in their 20s, 50s or 80s wary of the Jewish dating services but willing to try it -- for free.
As the Birthright Mega Event in Latrun went on that evening, there were Israeli singers and dancers, drummers, a great band, a real helicopter that landed and disgorged a real Israeli soldier, much flag-waving, more fireworks and, after 10 p.m., an all-out dance jam that sent the screaming joyous masses into a sweaty, hormone-stoked Zionist frenzy until the early morning hours.
I saw the future of Jewish philanthropy at Latrun -- the "Field of Dreams" approach to the Jewish future:
If you build it, they will come. Just make sure a mega-donor picks up the tab.
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