Collateral Damage From Birthright Israel? Not In My Book

They’re back! Ben Yehuda was filled with young crowds unseen since the summer. The buses parked on Yaffo told the story: large banners across the front grills sported the Taglit logo. Signs in the window… Hillels of Philadelphia, the University of Florida and more. It’s winter break and Birthright has again descended upon Jerusalem. Towards the top of the midrachov, a group of Korean students were entertaining the Motzie Shabbat crowd with Christmas carols in their native tongue. Never mind that more than one young American college student wondered out loud why Christmas carols were being sung in Hebrew! Meanwhile, the shop keepers were happy (the Birthright crowd is known to be big spenders, especially of Michal Negin and similar type jewelery). Burger King didn’t have an empty seat in the place.

Birthright Israel, probably the most successful, and certainly innovative, project to sprout on the worldwide Jewish scene so far this century is capping another record year. To this audience, I doubt I have to sing the praises of Birthright or point out the positive influence we are already witnessing.

And yet there are those that are questioning the priorities of our Jewish community in the extensive funding provided for this program. They wonder if the success of Birthright is damaging short-term high school programs. Are they supporting Birthright at the expense of local youth programs? Some even wonder if they are supporting Birthright instead of a host of traditional Federation initiatives. As one columnist asked in today’s Jerusalem Post, “Do we feed the elderly in our own communities or pay for students to visit Israel?”

I try to stay away from personal opinion in this blog; but as both a parent and long-time active member of our community, I need to add my two cents. There is no question all the North American Federations have a long list of extremely important communal priorities. Whether feeding the hungry, assisting the elderly, supporting day schools, or a host of other worthwhile endeavors, as we heard at the GA last month, these are core Federation objectives and our communities are dependent on the various Federations for spear-heading these endeavors, and more, in their respective cities. And as a community we must be supportive of this work.

But, if some individual programs are suffering, particularly those drawing the high school crowd, why blame Birthright. Yes, money is tight in every Federation. But Birthright should not be the scapegoat.

And no doubt there are some who rather than spend a whole lot of money on a summer trip for a high school student will wait for the mostly free (subsidized) Birthright trip during college. But this Bergen County principal is just plain wrong when he says, “No matter how great the Birthright trip is, we should not be its collateral damage”.

However, this is not the crux of the problem.

First, some programs are suffering because (especially since the advent of MASA) there are a host of new, exciting programs on the scene. The pie is only so big and can only be cut so many ways. The number of new programs that have come into existence over the past few years is disproportionate to the total number of young adults traveling here.

But more important, my opinion only here, the cost of not only these programs but “belonging” in the American Jewish community has reached completely ridiculous levels. When summer trips for high school students are hitting $8,000, I can not have much sympathy for the organizations having difficulty hitting their numbers. After all, there is only so much money to go around. And the price of most Jewish day schools? Unspeakable.

I recently overhead a conversation on King George Street between two (apparently) upwardly mobile and youngish Jewish women, parents and Zionists, who are considering relocating to Rechavia year round; not exactly an inexpensive neighborhood these days. As they rattled off certain expenses they incur in Bergen County, one indicated she could save $50,000. in after tax expenses by moving here: Federation pledge, synagogue membership, school etc. Typical suburban American Jewish expenses she felt would be mostly absent residing in Israel. And since her husband could mostly tele-commute, this was a very appealing thought.

Not everyone would consider moving to Israel, Aliyah or otherwise, to escape the cost of Jewish America. But unless and until we can bring down the cost of communal affiliation, let’s not blame Birthright.

On a closing note, for those of you who miss, or wonder what is a Mega Event, stay tuned. For on January 3, 6 and 7 there will be live web casts from Jerusalem.

And with just a few more days to receive those 2007 tax deductions, please consider supporting the Birthright Israel Foundation.