Birthright’s 11th Day
There have been 1,500 NEXT Shabbats, sponsored by Birthright, to help Birthright alumni celebrate Shabbat, often for the first time in their lives.
by Carolyn Slutsky
Not a week has gone by since she went on Birthright Israel last March that Jillian Tengood hasn’t poured through her online photos, e-mailed and chatted through Facebook with the American and Israeli friends she met on her trip or thought about the intensive experience in Israel.
“Before I went I’d heard about it, but now I’m telling other people they have to do it,” says Tengood, a graduate student in bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh.
Tengood is one of 200,000 “Birthrighters,” young Jews ages 18-26 who received a free 10-day trip to Israel.
With Birthright coming up on its 10th anniversary and the milestone of 200,000 participants crossed just last month, many observers say the trip might just be the most
important Jewish educational experience in existence today.
But once the planes land back in Chicago, London, Buenos Aires or New York and people return to college campuses or work, what’s next? It is a question Birthright Israel as an organization, along with educators and leaders throughout the Jewish community, is asking.
Birthright alumni are perhaps the greatest hope for the continuation of a diaspora Jewish life, but following up with them is a work in progress, an exercise in trial-and-error producing various creative, interesting opportunities for long-term engagement that may or may not ultimately work.
One of the people working closely with alumni is Rabbi Daniel Brenner, executive director of Birthright Israel NEXT, Birthright’s alumni organization. Rabbi Brenner’s own Judaic knowledge runs deep, but he approaches the young adults he works with and their Jewish engagement in a laid-back, come-as-you-are manner.
Most successful of official offerings, says Rabbi Brenner, has been the NEXT Shabbat program, where Birthright pays for people who met on the trip to have Shabbat dinner together. Though it started as a modest attempt the program has grown fast, with more than 1,500 meals held so far and a projected 5,000 by the end of 2009, including some 70,000 people, according to Rabbi Brenner. The dinners often come with themes borrowed from the wider culture — raw foods Shabbat, barbecue Shabbat, Halloween Shabbat. Like the trip itself, they combine Jewish content — challah-baking, candle-lighting — and fun. As Rabbi Brenner sees it, no matter how the dinners play out, they help bring Judaism to people in the physical and philosophical places where they live.
“Other rabbis might freak out if they saw people with a shrimp cocktail on their Shabbat table,” he says. “I look at that and say ‘This is so great that this is the first time they’re bringing Shabbat into their lives.’”
Rabbi Brenner says many mainstream Jewish institutions are wrestling with the question of how to convey why Judaism matters to the next generation, and feels Birthrighters are the perfect target audience.
“Our challenge is to strike while the fire’s hot,” he says. “If we do our job right, what we’re doing is not simply providing people with the next step in their Jewish journey, but something that is essential for any human being to feel: a sense of community, belonging and responsibility toward others.”
Downtown on West 13th Street, in a slick, modern space converted from a karate studio, the Jewish Enrichment Center does a 21st century brand of Jewish education. The center opened 10 years ago as an alternative to more institutional Judaism, but its programs now cater largely to the Birthright crowd. Mostly in their 20s, the people who hang out at the JEC are often “cashews” (half-Catholic, half-Jewish) and “pizza bagels” (half-Italian), many of whom had no affiliation with Judaism at all before Birthright. Now, says Matt Mindell, executive director, they take classes in various Jewish subjects.
“We do a mock Shabbat table to show the traditional foods and explain why we do it, what’s the meaning of it,” says Mindell, whose background is in acting. “And the wedding – people are like, ‘why do we step on the glass, what’s up with the seven times around?’ The goal is that people should feel like they have that acceptance, they’re part of the Jewish community, they’re insiders.”
Another key offering is the bar mitzvah program, which allows people who never had a bar mitzvah to have one.
Eric Gorenstein was one of those people. He had aged out of being eligible for Birthright itself and so participated last summer in Israel Reloaded, a JEC program similar to Birthright that is subsidized but not free. But when he returned, he began thinking about the bar mitzvah he never had, in part to avoid the judgment he felt would rain on his family, who couldn’t afford a lavish party like others in their Riverdale community.
Gorenstein, now 31, says having a bar mitzvah was not just about him, but a way to pass his Jewish identity on to his future children.
Mindell says that despite what sometimes looks like a catch-as-catch-can Judaism with no formal direction or rules, he feels confident that when people are able to engage in the ways that speak to them, they are all success stories.
“If they didn’t have that rite of passage they feel like they’re not Jewish,” he says, “so we want to give them the tools to feel like this is their heritage.”
Last month, Birthright got a new head. Robert Aronson, who also serves as president of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, already seems plugged into the follow-up philosophy that alumni should be met where they are and offered a chance at fun.
“You can’t dictate for this age group, you can’t say, ‘Tuesday Torah-study class, everyone come,’” Aronson tells The Jewish Week. “You have to listen to what they want. Can you give them a good time being Jewish back in the U.S.?”
Aronson says his main priority is fundraising, a difficult task at any time but especially in this economy. The organization received hefty support from Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire philanthropist, who funded the program over the last two years to the tune of $70 million. This year, after losing several billion dollars, Adelson pledged $20 million and $10 million for 2010, provided that the organization matches him by raising $10 million. It remains to be seen whether alumni activities will be threatened if the pool of available money is vastly decreased.
Meanwhile, this summer Birthright Israel projects it will take around 10,000 people, down from a little more than 25,000 in summer 2008, according to Birthright officials.
Birthright has sparked many romantic relationships.
Kayla Ravitz, who went on Birthright in June 2007, says that within a few days of arriving in Israel she met Hudi Miller, a guy on her bus. Ravitz, whose Facebook page lists her religious views as “love the jews,” was surprised to find herself drawn to Miller, whose father is a rabbi and who was more religious than she was.
“This is the first Jewish boyfriend I ever had,” says the senior at Florida State University. “Dating a Jewish guy was never a priority of mine.” While she is still not a regular in synagogue she says she respects the religion more since her trip and follows the news from Israel to a much greater degree.
And last month in Mumbai, India, Yuval and Celina Moses, who met on Birthright, were married. Since there are only a few thousand Jews dispersed throughout India, a country of one billion, Birthright often provides the first opportunity for young Indian Jews to meet, and several Indian couples have resulted from the trip, including four others who attended the Moses’ wedding.
Brandeis demographer Len Saxe, who recently co-wrote a book with Barry Chazan, “10 Days of Birthright Israel,” says that when Birthright was first put on the table critics scoffed at the idea that 10 days could change people’s lives.
But his research has shown that those 10 days, what he calls the “cultural island” of the experience, can lead to serious Jewish engagement.
“Birthright is one of the most profound experiments that’s ever been done in Jewish life ... we haven’t even begun to mine the lessons,” he says.
But not everyone has a sunny perspective on the trip after returning home. For Alice, who asked that her last name not be used, the trip forced her to confront some of her internal conflicts and ambivalence about Israel.
“The point of Birthright is not to think about the humanitarian perspective but to love Israel, to give money and move there and be a vocal voice for Israel here,” she says.
When she returned, Alice found herself more involved than ever in progressive Jewish causes, ever supportive of Israel and grateful for her trip, but with more questions than answers.
“It would have been easy to go on Birthright and think Israel is super-fun and I want to hang out here and support them, but it’s not something I can do so easily,” she says.
Jacob Shwirtz, born and raised in Brooklyn, has become the poster child for another iteration of Birthright alum. He went in January of 2003 and was so moved that he returned that summer and made aliyah in December. Soon after, he created the Israel chapter of the Birthright alumni association and serves as a liaison for Birthrighters considering aliyah. Now 29 and working in Internet strategy and management, he plans to stay in Israel indefinitely and says he was inspired to move there because his Birthright trip exposed him to an active, modern-day country full of opportunity.
“I realize there are problems, annoyances, bureaucracy, anywhere in the world, it’s all how you perceive of it and deal with it,” he says.
Though it’s not the only goal of the trip, many alumni say they can’t wait to get back to Israel for another trip or, like Shwirtz, forever.
“It’s great as I experienced it as someone in my 20s, you’re going to get something different out of it depending on what point in your life you’re in,” says Tengood, the graduate student, on her desire to return to Israel. “I’d like to do it again, but I know there will be nothing the same as that Birthright trip.”