Non-Orthodox American Jews are seriously worried about their future. Assimilation is increasing and vast numbers of young Jews seem to be disappearing from the ranks. Over the years the panaceas have lost their attraction–secular Judaism, Zionism, Holocaust, new age alternatives, even kabbala. So the idea emerged that free trips to Israel with no agenda other than experiencing Israel might just give a greater incentive to remain connected than say, a visit to a synagogue (or “temple” as they like to call it over here). An organization called Birthright was established. Wealthy American Jews poured millions into it. The Israeli government, anxious both for tourist money and ties with the USA, put funding in too. The Birthright website proudly declares:
“Taglit-Birthright Israel’s founders created this program to send thousands of young Jewish adults from all over the world to Israel as a gift in order to diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world; to strengthen the sense of solidarity among world Jewry; and to strengthen participants’ personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people.”
According to The Jewish Week, about half the youngsters who go on this junket come from families with one non-Jewish parent. Some put the figure at 30%, which is a reasonable reflection of the state of American Jewry. Apparently many who go on the trips are positively impressed. But it seems very few actually return and get involved in anything Jewish. Now if Birthright was simply an exercise in public relations, meeting nice Israelis, then I would argue it is a project well worth supporting and encouraging. Israel has such awful public relations. Many American universities, like the European ones, are now hotbeds of one-sided anti-Israel propaganda, pressure, and sentiment that any youngsters who can go and see for themselves, the good as well as the bad, must certainly help tip the balance. They certainly cannot do worse than almost every Israeli spokesman who appears on the world’s media.
Organizations like the John Levy’s Friends of Israel Educational Foundation in the UK (don’t confuse it with the missionary site of a similar name), have for years been working away sending youngsters, Jewish and non-Jewish, politicians, and opinion-formers to Israel to get a fairer perspective, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. But they are honest about their aims and clear about their objectives.
“Tell it not in Gat“, some in Birthright actually did want to try to persuade the participants to become more Jewishly committed. Ah, but here is the rub. What does it mean “more Jewish”? One Israel provider company has been struck off the list because as it took its participants around the usual water parks, beaches, and nightclubs (as well as archaeological and political sites), its leaders were pushing agendas such as, “Why not consider coming to Israel?” and “You should try to marry Jewish.” Politically correct secular or Reform America does not like anyone pushing agendas, certainly not if they are more religious or Zionist than they are.
Birthright realized most of its participants returned to the USA and simply disappeared off the radar. So they sensibly established a department to follow up and try to keep them involved. One recipient of finance was the Jewish Enrichment Center in Lower Manhattan and by all accounts it has been successful in getting many of the Birthright participants to become more involved. It is nondenominational, welcomes everyone in, and does not discriminate, BUT its charismatic leaders are personally Orthodox! Never mind they are tolerant, they have an agenda. They want people to live manifestly Jewish lives! Whereas most participants seem to have enjoyed the soft sell, some have bridled and now a paper called the Forward (actually supported by a major supporter of Birthright), founded on anti-religious, secular, Yiddishist Bundist principles, has revealed the link between JEC and the Charedi Baal Teshuva movement, Ohr Somayach, and is demanding Birthright cut ties.
Now, I do not identify or agree with a lot of the Baal Teshuva movement methods or ideology, whether it is Aish HaTorah, Lubavitch, or Ohr Somayach. But no one can deny they do a very important and valuable job in keeping many young Jews in touch with Judaism, providing centers of support, and indeed persuading some to lead more religious lives! In my view, that is the way to stop attrition, although of course in this life nothing is ever guaranteed. It makes sense to help something that actually succeeds instead of pouring millions into something that does not. There is a lot wrong with institutional religion. But I think it is self-evident that living a religiously committed Jewish life is a far more successful way of keeping Judaism alive (if you want to) than living a completely anti-religious one. Besides, it is a free society, no compulsion. If you do not like the message you can walk.
I really like the wide range of Jewish affiliation in the USA. Even the strong secular presence has something to commend. Every New York university has courses on secular Jewish culture and identity. But as a transmittable ideology it does not succeed, precisely because it is not passionate or behavioral enough. I welcome the variations of the Jewish religion so that there are options but I regret their almost paranoid need to attack anyone more religious than they are. Here is an example of religious intolerance coming not from the Right but from the Left.
If Birthright were only a PR exercise, then fair enough, you don’t want any religious ingredient. But if, as it claims, it also wants to strengthen Jewish identity and by implication keep the Jewish people alive, then it should not give in to negative pressure and prevent those who actually have track records of success from trying. You can be Jewish, they seem to say, so long as it is only my kind of Jewish.