Birthright + 1: One Response to the Pew Study

by Daniel Gropper

When the first and second intifada affected teen travel to Israel, Birthright was unveiled. It was met with great skepticism. How could a ten day trip to Israel really impact Jewish identity? Was it a good use of philanthropic dollars? Wouldn’t that money be better spent on subsidizing the trifecta of proven programs: longer term summer trips to Israel, Jewish summer camps and day school tuition? Wouldn’t it make more sense to build up and promote the innovative family and youth programs that were just taking root in synagogue settings? I was one of Birthright’s skeptics. Now, fourteen years later, I am a convert to the power of Birthright Israel to transform lives. When the research for the 2000-2001 NJPS occurred, Birthright was in its infancy. Therefore, its impact is not yet fully understood. However, I believe it is time for a new iteration of Birthright – one that focuses on young Jews at a critical time in their lives, the period between a couple getting married and choosing to settle down.

As a rabbi serving a Reform congregation the Pew study affirmed what I already knew. I stand at the doorway of Jewish communal engagement, a doorway that often feels like a revolving door. I watch people enter congregations (often for the first time) and leave congregational life (often never to be heard from again).

I am also very aware of those who count themselves among the “nones.” Time and again I hear people telling me that they are “spiritual but not religious.” Often this means they are merely unobservant. When I dig a little deeper I find what the Pew study found. These are Jews who have a strong connection to the notion of peoplehood, identity with Israel and are proud to be Jewish – they just have “God issues,” are challenged by the language of prayer and feel inadequate when it comes to Jewish literacy and practice. A large part of the blame is on us. We never gave young Jews the opportunity to really explore their Jewish questions, to really examine their beliefs – especially at the moments in life when it mattered most.

I have also read many responses to the Pew study. From those who say “the sky is falling,” to those who say, “don’t panic.” Yet – aside from the comments of Nigel Savage of Hazon and Ruth Messenger of AJWS who both run organizations that allow people to approach Judaism through doorways that many young Jews know – those of environmentalism, food, exercise and service learning (instead of worship services and study), I have not yet seen any concrete programmatic responses to the challenges raised by the Pew study. Here’s one: Birthright Plus One. A highly subsided trip to Israel as a first year anniversary gift from the Jewish people.

We are not going to change or reverse the intermarriage rate. Only a fraction of our young people will attend Jewish Day Schools, Jewish summer camps or long term Israel programs. the survey shows that fewer and fewer Jews will join synagogues – and if they do, it is more often for the short term. What we CAN do is to give these young Jews an experience at a critical juncture in their lives, an experience that will plant real seeds, giving them an opportunity to think about what it means to be Jewish and how Judaism can come to be meaningful and relevant in their daily lives.

Last June, I worked on UJA/Federation of New York’s day long symposium on Engaging Interfaith Families. It was a bold move on Federation’s part and was filled with intense energy. During one of the early sessions, I wrote the following on a napkin. “The next iteration of birthright should be for interfaith couples.”

Here’s the idea:

  • on (or about) a couple’s first anniversary, they would get a free (or heavily subsidized) Birthright experience in Israel.
  • the couple needs to have at least one Jewish partner who identifies as a Jew.
  • the Jew could have already traveled to Israel on Birthright (i.e. prior trips would not disqualify)
  • Birthright would connect these couples to local synagogues before and after their trip to engage them.

Why would such a program be a valuable investment for the future of Judaism in North America?

  1. Data shows how impactful a Birthright experience is to Jews. Just think about how much it will mean to couples.
  2. Around their first anniversary young couples are having serious conversations about the rest of their lives together. The “honeymoon” period has worn off. Now (especially as most couples with a Jewish partner are older), discussions about children are taking place as are questions of where they might settle. They may or may not be talking about the role of Judaism in their lives. Israel is the most powerful classroom to have these conversations about identity, meaning and the role Judaism can play. AND the bonus of being with other couples in and around the same age is that the conversations can be quite fruitful, especially if those leading the conversations are trained facilitators.
  3. We get to maintain a connection to couples after the wedding. Those of us who officiate at weddings spend a lot of time getting to know couples – usually they share a great deal of their personal life, their hopes and dreams with us. After the wedding, unless they live in our communities (which for us suburban rabbis is rare), we hardly if ever see them. In other words, until these couples give birth to a 3rd grader, we have little to no contact. Birthright for couples will be a great way to create, maintain and nurture those relationships.

I know that Israel raises all sorts of issues among young people. This idea, however, is not just about identification with Israel. It is about identification with Judaism, the Jewish future and Jewish people at a critical juncture in a young couple’s life. Our task is to connect with these couples when it matters most and to have them form significant relationships to Judaism that will hopefully inform their lives far into the future.

To paraphrase Howard Behar, former president of Starbucks: “we are not in the Jewish business serving people. We are in the people business serving Judaism.” Birthright Plus One might be one way to do this.

Are there funders out there who want to help make this happen?

Rabbi Daniel Gropper is the spiritual leader of Community Synagogue of Rye, New York.