NEW YORK — A new study on Birthright alumni, put out by researchers Fern Chertok, Theodore Sasson and Leonard Saxe, is shining a light on the question of why so many of these young adults are not taking part in Jewish activities upon their return from Israel.
Some Birthright backers say the problem is that Jewish organizations and institutions have done an inadequate job of reaching out. The reality, however, is that those of us who have spent the better part of the past decade creating new opportunities to engage the younger generation of Jewish life often have done so without the official cooperation of Birthright.
Long considered an extraordinary success since its inception, the 10-day Birthright experience has been a tremendous occasion for celebration in our community. (I led a Birthright trip in 2001 as the Hillel director at New York University.)
The program’s greatest contribution — the creation of an immersive peer-learning trip with deeply cultivated connections to Jewish peoplehood and the land of Israel — is an undeniable achievement. That this has been successful on such a massive scale (more than 200,000 participants) boggles the mind.
The results aren’t as impressive, however, when it comes to post-trip participation in Jewish activities. And the study, “Tourists, Travelers, and Citizens: Jewish Engagement of Young Adults in Four Centers of North American Jewish Life,” seems to suggest that the problem is that somehow the organized Jewish community has failed to attract this enthusiastic and turned-on generation of young Jews, leaving them bereft after the high of their journey to Israel.
But the study never takes into account that structurally the post-trip programming is destined for failure because it fails to make equal partners out of the strong number of Jewish start-ups, JCCs and active, thriving synagogues ready to meet these young Jews where they’re at and welcoming them into Jewish life.
I know this from firsthand experience.
During the early days of Birthright planning, I was invited to a focus group with other Jewish leaders that included brainstorming on what to do once program participants returned home. Several of us made it abundantly clear that we needed access to the names of participants. Birthright officials made it clear that this would not be possible. At the time it was stated that this valuable list of Birthright alumni would be used for fundraising to help support and sustain the program — a rather counterintuitive pursuit for engaging the young and disconnected, and one that only now, eight years later, is being launched in a serious way.
In my capacity as director of the Bronfman Center at NYU; as founder of Brooklyn Jews, considered one of the many success stories of local Jewish community organizers; and now as the rabbi of one of New York City’s fastest growing, multi-generational synagogue communities, my experience has been that Birthright has no desire to share the names of trip participants who live in and around Brooklyn.
The troubling implication is that Birthright is not interested in establishing partnerships with an array of great new grassroots Jewish initiatives that have a proven track record at engaging young people — the clear, stated and laudable goal of sending them to Israel in the first place.
In cities such as Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, Boston, Washington and New York — just to name a few — thousands of young Jews are not only being reached but being developed as integral players in the revitalization of American Jewish life (also one of Birthright’s professed goals).
So here’s my simple request to my friends at Birthright: Release those lists to the field and let those who are skilled in the art of reaching Jews where they’re at do the work we love to do. We are all partners in this endeavor of sustaining and revitalizing Jewish life.
(Rabbi Andy Bachman is the religious leader of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn.)