Editor’s note: The author formally managed Birthright Israel, among other projects, for the Minneapolis and Saint Paul Jewish Federations.Recently in the Forward, there was an article complaining about the filings of Birthight Israel. I have my own complaints with the program, but to suggest, as the article does, that BRI is doing young Jews a disservice is absolutely ludicrous. Further, the article offers no solutions; in fact, it even laments the challenge in the final paragraph: “Of course, learning Yiddish, or any Jewish language, takes enormous commitment, as well as resources, and there isn’t one simple formula for American Jewry. But it seems obvious ‘Peak Experience’ Judaism cannot be expected to get young Jews excited about Jewish life between the peaks. What we need are long term investments in literacy and cultural empowerment, of all kinds.”
How incredibly naïve. I just LOVE IT when people write about “those darn kids” and how they won’t invest in traditional Jewish life.
The author also talks about how after decades of Jewish learning, this person is STILL not bored. Right – that’s you. Hell, it’s also me. I never get bored. But that is not the standard. Most Jews don’t have time for that, for deep involvement and commitment to the Jewish world.
So the establishment complains but offers no solutions.
I see our synagogues and organizations in the Twin Cities have responses. They constantly wrestle, but all try to avoid the pitfall of “well why don’t they come?” I say to the credit of the Twin Cities’ organizations, at least they are TRYING to address the problem with myriad innovating ideas and adoption of best practices enacted elsewhere.
Birthright may not be the solution to solving all of contemporary Judaism’s marketing problems, but it certainly isn’t the cause of the issue. Jews don’t want to engage, and criticizing the one thing that actually works seems like bitter complaining, and not forward thinking. What should these resources be used for instead? Yiddish classes? Good luck.
Birthright exists to whet the Jews’ appetites, not to be the endgame of their otherwise malnourished Jewish identities. The issue is with an institutional Jewish world that isn’t equipped to leverage the experience of Birthright and other similar programs to create continued programming on a local level. The author notes that people come back fired up, but that that fire quickly goes out. That’s right: The local organizations don’t stoke that fire because they know that person won’t join their synagogue. But that’s not the point of BRI – to get people to join institutions.
The point is to start the conversation. It is on YOU, Rokhl Kafrissen, to figure out how to engage them not the other way around. Young Jews don’t “owe” the organized Jewish world, anything. Quite the contrary. If you need some tips, feel free to ask local organizations like Makom, Moishe House, YJP, YALA, TC Jewfolk, HMI, the St. Paul Federations Giving Circles, NextGen… The list goes on. If anyone is letting down these young Jews, it isn’t Birthright; it’s that attitude.
Charley Smith served the Minneapolis and Saint Paul Jewish Federations by developing their platform for reaching young adults and millennials, YALA. Today he lives in Miami with his partner, Shaked, and their dog Gever. He formerly managed Honeymoon Israel, Birthright Israel and the local cohort of the 248Community Action Network.
Rokhl, the author of the linked article, is neither old nor male.
Also, not a rabbi.
I think you’ve missed the point of Rokhl’s article – the fact that the post-birthright engagement programs aren’t doing very well is more of a problem that you should be solving, as someone with positions in federations and the like. You think that Rokhl’s emhpasis on Yiddish and Jewish culture isn’t ‘forward thinking’, but I think there is a much greater lack of forward thinking on the part of institutions flailing around for the next breakthrough in ways to reach millenials with happy hours or Israel engagement. Why not give real investment in Jewish cultural education, Yiddish, Ladino, and diaspora culture a try?
You said that the synagogues and organization in the Twin Cities are trying many different things, but you also say that local institutions don’t have the leverage to keep the fire from going out! It seems like you and Rokhl agree that Birthright and American institutions can’t keep Jewish quote-unquote identity going! The problem exists on both ends. I never went on Birthright. I’ve never been to any event or program run by a federation. I have, however, been involved in IfNotNow, which is far more serious and much more of a community of young Jews looking for their place within the Jewish world than many involved in Jewish institutions believe it to be. It’s also much more accessible than federations or synagogues or Birthright, bureaucratic organizations the average Jewish 20 to 30 year old has very little influence over. That, along with a staunch commitment to freedom and dignity for Israelis and Palestinians, is something that Jewish institutions need to be taking more seriously.