Hey, What's the Big (Jewish) Idea?
Avi Herring

In many ways, Birthright Israel is the quintessentially successful Jewish program. Founded in 2000 by Jewish philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt in concert with the Israeli government and Diaspora Jewish Federations, Birthright offers free 10-day trips to Israel for Jewish youth ages 18-26. In its near decade of existence, Birthright has attracted increasingly high numbers of participants, earned enthusiastic praise from many of its alumni, and continued to receive generous philanthropic support.

Influenced in part by Birthright’s success, Bronfman introduced a contest in 2007 for “the next big Jewish idea,” with the winner receiving a two-year visiting professorship at Brandeis University and a six-figure salary. The aim, according to Brandeis Professor Jonathan Sarna, was to find the next Birthright.

The Birthright story is genuinely impressive and promising. But before everyone clambers onto the bandwagon, the program deserves a closer look.

Birthright’s mission is an ambitious one. The trips to Israel, the program says, are meant 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.” While the goals are noble, the results are uneven.

Birthright’s own data show that while most alumni report positive attitudes toward the Jewish people and Israel after the trip, few get involved in their Jewish communities on their return. This data can support two different arguments. Some believe Birthright gives a superficial, ineffective educational experience to many at the expense of the committed few. But to others, Birthright is an educational gem that has already achieved a modicum of success, and with some adaptation, will lead to a true revolution of American Jewry.

Birthright has put big money toward its mission. It has done so by fostering cooperation-a recurring theme-among individuals and organizations from various corners of the Jewish community. Rabbi David Gedzelman, Executive Director of the Steinhardt Foundation, said the two initial contributors to the project quickly realized that an initiative with such high aspirations needed broad support. They “knew that this idea needed to be an idea of the entire Jewish people. There needed to be three partners-independent philanthropists, the government of Israel, and North American Jewish communities,” Gedzelman said. Steinhardt and Bronfman quickly created a formula whereby the three partners each contributed 1/3 of the funding. Since then, the amount of private funding has increased tremendously. In one instance, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson pledged $60 million during the past year alone.

Though the wide scope of Birthright’s financial support is a major achievement, such collaboration sometimes pits conflicting interests against each another. The prime example of this is with regard to aliyah, immigration to Israel. According to Professor Barry Chazan, who helped develop Birthright’s educational curriculum, Birthright was never envisioned to encourage immigration. With 80% of the participants coming from North America, where assimilation and intermarriage have skyrocketed, Birthright’s official focus is to strengthen personal Jewish identity and increase ties between Diaspora Jews and Israel. However, the State of Israel, a Birthright partner, generally encourages Diaspora Jews to immigrate. As a result, messages can conflict: When the Jewish Agency, which is in charge of Israel’s relations with world Jewry, sends officials to speak to Birthright groups, many stress the importance of immigration. In addition, all of Birthright’s tour guides are Israeli, and their personal support of immigration often colors the picture they paint for participants.

The partners’ goals may differ, but they have agreed on an innovative organizational model. With such a large constituency, Birthright could have developed an immense bureaucracy. Instead, its directors delegated to other companies the task of running individual trips. Birthright has 26 different trip organizers, including for- and non-profit companies, which offer an array of ideological options (both Chabad and the Reform Movement offer Birthright trips). With so many options, participants can choose the program they find most interesting-if they like hiking, they can choose Israel Outdoors. If they are or want to be involved with Hillel, they can travel on a Hillel-run Birthright trip.

While Birthright lets others run its trips, it does impose certain standards. According to Chazan, who helped develop Birthright’s educational curriculum, the program promotes both firmness and flexibility. Forty percent of the trip must focus on five central themes: contemporary Israel, the narrative of the Jewish people, the values of the Jewish people, arts and culture, and the Jewish Hebrew calendar (most importantly, the Sabbath). Trip providers can choose to fulfill these standards through a variety of activities, though Birthright recommends visiting certain sites for each one. The other 60% of the program is left up to the individual trip providers. Once providers comply with these guidelines and undergo training, they receive funding from Birthright. Birthright employs only a cadre of inspectors to monitor the different groups and ensure quality control.

This system maximizes participants’ choice while encouraging healthy competition between providers. It also saves Birthright the difficulty of micromanaging every part of their Israel-tourism enterprise.

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Of course, these organizational innovations are just means to the end of bringing Diaspora (mostly American) Jews to Israel. Birthright has been achieving that end with staggering success. At current rates, 1/3 of American Jews born since 1995 will go on Birthright by their 27th birthday. By summer 2008, Birthright will have brought almost 200,000 young Diaspora Jews to Israel during the past seven years, and 100,000 remain on the waiting list.

For the first time, a significant percentage of young American Jews are having an intensive (albeit short) Jewish educational experience in Israel. But Birthright’s very success in bringing so many Jews to Israel is also controversial.

Because Birthright is for young adults who have never had a peer experience in Israel, it targets those who are generally less Jewishly involved-not those who, for example, have traveled to Israel with their Jewish day schools, youth groups or summer camps. Gedzelman said the founders made this decision because “traditional organizations weren’t doing enough to engage those people. The founders of Birthright felt it was their moral obligation to touch the lives of those people whom no one was touching.”

There is much to say for this premise, but Birthright’s focus on the less Jewishly involved demographic is, in part, a gamble-it puts major resources toward a group that has not previously shown serious Jewish commitment. It therefore runs the risk of attracting youth who, while Jewish, may not take a trip to Israel as an opportunity to connect meaningfully with the Jewish State or people. (The 10 days in Israel, after all, can be used just as a free chance to vacation and socialize in an exotic location with peers.) Surely Birthright understands this, and it is part of the whole point-a program could not facilitate engagement with Jewish life except by targeting the unengaged. The question becomes, then, whether Birthright succeeds in fostering engagement among its alumni.

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According to the authoritative survey on the subject, carried out by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University, while Birthright succeeds in influencing its participants’ attitudes toward Israel and the Jewish people, it is less successful in motivating participants to join Jewish communities after the trip.

Let’s start with Birthright’s successes. In the Steinhardt Institute’s 2007 survey, 62% of Birthright participants said they were “very much connected” to Israel three months after the trip (compared to 21% of non-participants). Birthright participants were also more likely than non-participants to view Israel as a “lively democracy,” “multicultural society,” and “potential future home.” And alumni were also 18% more likely than non-participants to say that raising Jewish children was “very important.” Most notably, perhaps, when researchers surveyed alumni again three years after the initial survey, they found that the alumni’s positive attitudes had endured.

But the Steinhardt Institute data demonstrate that warm attitudes toward Israel and the Jewish people don’t necessarily translate into actions. For Birthright alumni not on college campuses, their post-trip Jewish involvement was unchanged. And even among campus-based alumni, the change, while positive, is small: 60% of Birthright alumni have attended at least one Hillel program, compared to 53% of their non-Birthright peers. In terms of religious observance, Birthright participants are 12% more likely than non-participants to have a special meal on Shabbat, but are no more likely to attend a religious service.

Given this, the study’s authors conclude that Birthright’s “demonstrated impact on actual Jewish behavior is modest and inconsistent. Although the Birthright Israel experience increases engagement in organized Jewish life on campus, the gain is only partial.”

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Birthright’s critics use this data to suggest that Birthright’s “big idea” is not so great after all-and that it might in fact be cheapening Jewish education. By appealing to the lowest common denominator, some claim, the Jewish community is failing to give higher quality Jewish education to tomorrow’s Jewish leaders.

Those most critical of Birthright are generally administrators and educators of more traditional, longer-term summer or academic programs in Israel. These programs, which often run from 6-8 weeks, have been around for decades, and include United Synagogue Youth (USY) Israel Pilgrimage, Ramah Seminar, North American Foundation of Temple Youth (NFTY) in Israel, Young Judaea, and Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI). Directors of these programs say that while the Birthright idea is laudable in theory, it is reducing enrollment in longer-term programs because parents consciously avoid paying $5,000-$7,000 when they can send their children on Birthright for free.

These educators are concerned about this trend not just because of their self-interest, but because they claim their programs are more substantive and usually focus on the high school years, when kids are more impressionable. In their view, a two-month experience is more influential than a 10-day one: there are more opportunities and more time to tour sites, process feelings, and build community. In a recent article entitled “Birth-Wrong,” Yossi Katz, an educator for AMHSI, wrote that “if I really had my choice, I’d prefer to bring [young Jews] to Israel when they were 16 or 17 for two months of true Jewish education and not wait till all I could give them was too little - too late.”

While understandable, this criticism has little data to support it. Program representatives who make this case do so based mostly on anecdotal evidence (only AMHSI has any type of data supporting its claims). This stands in stark contrast to Birthright, where part of the “big idea” is to report and measure its successes and failures. Without this data, the longer-term programs are making unfounded claims. It may be, for example, that the intensity of the Birthright experience, where every day can be activity-filled and memorable, is actually more influential than a longer program which may seem to drag on. If longer-term Israel programs want to prove their claims, they must start collecting data on their programs according to the same rigorous standards as Birthright.

And even Birthright’s well-collected data tell only a partial story. Because Birthright is less than a decade old, its level of success will only become clear when its alumni start to marry, have children and raise families. Many Birthright alumni may skip a Hillel program in college but seriously consider marrying a Jew when it comes time to make that choice. As Birthright continues to collect this data, we can expect the picture to become clearer.

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The assertion that Birthright is “too little too late” assumes fundamental problems with the program. Yet it seems that Birthright’s problems can be solved. An additional Steinhardt Institute report argues that two main hurdles need to be cleared: Birthright doesn’t have sufficient infrastructure to network among its alumni, and many participants find it hard to stay connected to their Birthright friends once back in America.

Since Birthright is run through many different providers, most participants end up traveling with organizations that don’t have representatives in their home communities. So if, for example, a University of Maryland student attends Birthright with the company Israel Experts, it is unlikely that his campus Hillel will know to reach out to him once he returns home. In turn, it is less likely that the student will become involved, post-Birthright, in his campus Jewish community.

The other, related, problem is that most Birthright trips are not campus or community-based. While Hillel offers campus-specific trips, the majority of Birthright participants attend either regional or national trips. As a result, these people don’t usually return to their campuses or communities with any of their Birthright friends, who are spread throughout the region and country. These alumni are often less inclined to attend a Hillel or other Jewish event because without a friend or two to attend with, it’s much harder to make that first leap into Jewish activities.

Thus far, alumni initiatives have not been well coordinated. There are currently ten cities where Birthright is working with either federations or other local organizations to plan programming. But only one, New York City, has a full-time staff person.

Starting in March, Birthright is planning a new alumni outreach program called “Birthright Israel Next,” in which Birthright will begin encouraging trip providers to organize city-based (instead of national) trips. The organization will then appoint full-time staffers in 15 different cities to engage alumni. Birthright will also hire five “fellows,” either former Birthright staff members or young professionals working in innovative Jewish organizations, in each city to further facilitate community development. Fellows and staffers will then plan programs tailored to the particular interests of different alumni groups. The Fellows will also serve again as Birthright staff members with the hope of integrating their participants into the U.S. Birthright communities.

Rabbi Daniel Brenner, Vice President of Education for the Birthright Israel Foundation and Executive Director of Birthright Israel Next, says the initiative is based on a new understanding of how to engage people. “Behavior is only going to change by virtue of relationship building,” he said. “So much of the program has been about incredible enthusiasm for the trip itself. The real question for post-trip [programming] is how to sustain the community that was built around the trip, or how you invite people into the Jewish community when they come back.”

Brenner said he arrived at the new model through consultation with Jewish federations, alumni and researchers. Brenner and his team concluded that because young American Jews don’t feel comfortable in existing Jewish institutions like synagogues, Birthright had to find different means to engage them. Building communities at the local level, led by Birthright-age staff, is the answer he’s betting on. The initiative puts a more personal face on alumni involvement, and it seems well-conceived: Would you rather receive a dinner invitation from an anonymous emailer, or from your Birthright group leader, with whom you have already traveled and formed a bond?

The question is whether the new initiative can reach enough people. There are already more than 100,000 Birthright alumni in the United States, with the number expected to double in the coming years. Birthright Israel Next’s goal is to reach 60,000 directly. With so few staff people, this is a daunting number. And even if they are successful, that still leaves out a huge number of participants. Nevertheless, the new model of bottom-up relationship-building is compelling.

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Impressive as Birthright’s achievements in fundraising, organization and attracting participants may be, these are only tactical successes. In terms of ideology, Birthright says its aim is to increase personal Jewish identity, strengthen the feeling of “peoplehood” among Jews worldwide, and bring American Jews closer to Israel. But at its very core, with its appeal to the less-involved and less-strongly identified Jews, Birthright’s goal is to combat assimilation by giving American Jews positive Jewish experiences. Through all this, there seems to be a line connecting touring in Israel with community-building at home and, ultimately, with furthering Jewish continuity.

The problem with this approach is that it’s strictly based on experiences. 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. The next big Jewish idea must be one that gives an intellectual, compelling reason to be Jewish in 21st century America.

The winner of Brandeis’s recent big idea contest, Yehuda Kurtzer, might provide an interesting way forward. In his proposal, “The sacred task of rebuilding Jewish memory,” he writes: “The next great step for the Jewish future will be the reclamation of the Jewish past. I believe that the most successful, interesting and engaging programs currently invigorating the Jewish world are seizing upon this idea, and implementing the gifts of the Jewish past in surprisingly progressive and fresh ways.” Kurtzer will eventually publish a book that explains how the Jewish people’s collective past can inform its future. It’s somewhat ironic that the winning big idea is one that focuses on the past, but maybe there’s something to this. At a time when Jewish organizations are not giving American Jews a convincing reason to be Jewish, mining our history for inspiration can be an important part of the process in redefining who we are.

Kurtzer’s work won’t come out for several years, so it will be some time before we hear his vision of the next big Jewish idea. But as he begins to put ink to paper, and as we all continue to ponder the future of American Jewry, one thing is clear: American Judaism needs a mission statement. Birthright provides wonderful positive Jewish experiences, increases participants’ feelings of belonging to the Jewish people and attachment to Israel, and may even get many of its alumni involved back at home. But it is up to others, it seems, to answer the more fundamental question of why it’s all important in the first place.


AVI HERRING is a sophomore in List College and a Junior Editor of The Current. He wrote “Peace in a Sea of Repression” for the Fall 2007 issue. .

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