Birthright Israel is the crown jewel of Jewish philanthropic innovation. In a decade, the program has taken more than 200,000 Jews, age 18 to 26, to Israel. The results, at least in terms of increasing the connection young Jewish adults feel toward Israel, have been excellent. But a new study finds that the Jewish communities to which Birthright alum return have failed to make the connection.
“The study, ‘Tourists, Travelers, and Citizens: Jewish Engagement of Young Adults in Four Centers of North American Jewish Life,’ seems to suggest that the problem is that somehow the organized Jewish community has failed at attracting this enthusiastic and turned-on generation of young Jews, leaving them bereft after the high of their journey to Israel,” Andy Bachman writes in a JTA op-ed. He continues:
But the study never takes into account that structurally the post-trip programming is destined for failure because it fails to make equal partners out of the strong number of Jewish start-ups, JCCs and active, thriving synagogues ready to meet these young Jews where they’re at and welcoming them into Jewish life.
I know this from firsthand experience.
During the early days of Birthright planning, I was invited to a focus group with other Jewish leaders that included brainstorming on what to do once program participants returned home. Several of us made it abundantly clear that we needed access to the names of participants. Birthright officials made it clear that this would not be possible. At the time it was stated that this valuable list of Birthright alumni would be used for fund raising to help support and sustain the program—a rather counter-intuitive pursuit for engaging the young and disconnected, and one that only now, eight years later, is being launched in a serious way.
In my capacity as director of the Bronfman Center at NYU; as founder of Brooklyn Jews, considered one of the many success stories of local Jewish community organizers; and now as the rabbi of one of New York City’s fastest growing, multi-generational synagogue communities, my experience has been that Birthright has no desire to share the names of trip participants who live in and around Brooklyn.
The troubling implication is that Birthright is not interested in establishing partnerships with an array of great new grass-roots Jewish initiatives that have a proven track record at engaging young people—the clear, stated and laudable goal of sending them to Israel in the first place.