Forward Thinking

(PHOTO: Birthright Israel NEXT alumni from Brooklyn dance at the National Yiddish Book Center)

Way back in 1997 I was a Steinhardt Fellow at CLAL – the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Fresh out of rabbinical school, I was thrown into a rowdy crew of Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative rabbis – all of whom were dedicated to finding some way that we could transcend those very labels and yet still be true to our convictions. (I was trained by the reconstuctionists so I kind of had a head start.)

I only met very briefly with Michael Steinhardt during that year, but I heard many times about his desire to create a “Common Judaism” – a Judaism that was proudly shared across secular and religious circles. I was taken by the idea – and much of my teaching and curricula building energies were focused on defining the parameters of just such a breakthrough concept in Jewish life.

Reading the recent Forward articles I am reminded by those years at CLAL.

I, for one, am proud of the diversity of the programs this past year that Birthright Israel NEXT supported in New York -- including programs such as a seminar on Jewish culture led by the brilliant faculty of the National Yiddish Book Center, an exhilarating dance performance by the Batsheva Dance Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and multiple evenings where Birthright Israel participants told their personal stories in our Monologues production. And I am also proud that there is room at our table for a sometimes irreverent reconstructionist rabbi like me and the sometimes irreverent haredi-trained rabbis from the JEC to work on the same project. In my experience, I have found that they offer a style of teaching that is compelling and a passion for Judaism that is genuine and that their offerings connect with a segment of our alumni. Their contribution to our overall offerings to Birthright Israel alumni in New York is yet another example of the diversity that crosses boundaries and exemplifies Birthright Israel’s maverick approach.

But the program that touches the most New Yorkers is not any of the cultural or religious events that we have organized, but our call for alumni to take responsibility for their own Jewish lives. I am incredibly proud that over 1,000 New Yorkers who are Birthright Israel alumni opened up their homes to their friends for “NEXT Shabbat” dinners. Inviting a large group of people into a small apartment is, in my opinion, an enormous responsibility. 82% of our hosts had little or no experience hosting a Shabbat dinner. Yet, three-quarters of them made a home-cooked meal for their guests. Since the average size of the meals was fourteen guests, that amounts to over fourteen thousand guests in the first year of the program. Nationally, our numbers are closing in on 50,000 guests. (Show me a Jewish organization that can create peer-led, home hospitality events where over 50,000 young adults meet each other and have a positive Jewish experience for an average cost of under $25. If we had more donors across the country who saw the simple logic of this model, we could easily take the number of guests to 100,000.)

One of the things that happens after the Shabbat hosts finish their event is that they are asked how much of a grant that they would like to cover the expenses that they put up for the meal. They can get up to $25 per guest – but the vast majority of our hosts do not ask for $25. They ask for less because they realize that if they do, more people can benefit from the program.

In the past year alone Birthright Israel NEXT was involved in over four hundred events in eleven cities and we worked with over eighty partnering organizations. In other words, through Birthright Israel NEXT young adults are being exposed to multiple options for Jewish involvement – from mainstream Jewish institutions to emergent ones. I found it ironic that the Jewish Daily Forward editorial used the example of the JDC as one such possibility of the use of program funds because Birthright Israel NEXT actually worked with the JDC and I was fortunate to visit the JDC office in New York and meet with Birthright Israel alumni who discovered for the first time the life-saving work in the FSU that the Joint has undertaken. One of my staff worked on an amazing short film about her trip with other Birthright Israel alumni to the Ukraine to visit JDC projects. (There is a clip of it in this four minute video)

I hope that critics will take a look at the entirety of Birthright Israel NEXT and see not only the authentic diversity that we embrace, but the tens of thousands of young adults who are discovering that Jewish life in America is a big tent where secularists, all types of religious folks, and those who do not have a defined ideology have a home.