Why Birthright Israel, at $1,000,000,000, is Hafuch

coffee-1by Rabbi Aaron Meyer

So named for the little bit of coffee added to a greater quantity of milk, turning the norm on its head, or perhaps for the order in which the ingredients are combined, Cafe Hafuch, upside-down coffee, is the Israeli answer to cappuccino. Though pleasant tasting and popular, these hollow calories are often the first to go when a diet is in order. Birthright Israel is increasingly showing signs of becoming the upside-down answer to promoting Jewish life and a much-needed paradigm shift cannot come soon enough.

Take young Jews, 18-26, on a free trip to Israel and they will return rededicated to Jewish life, says the conventional wisdom. They will develop a connection to Israel. As funder Sheldon Adelson expressed to an auditorium full of Birthright participants in 2012, they will engage in some “hanky-panky”. They will overcome the forces of assimilation and affiliate with the established Jewish community.

This wisdom, promoted by a philanthropic, well-intention, and above-all-else different generation, has proven itself outdated. It isn’t working. A 2009 study by the Brandeis University Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, the first to comprehensively look at participant engagement five years following their trip, reported that “Participants … were not more likely to report feeling connected to Jewish customs and traditions or their local Jewish community” and that any increase in involvement was “only marginally statistically significant.” A 2012 update revealed that “Taglit [Birthright] participants and nonparticipants who are intermarried are equally likely to be raising their oldest children Jewish” and that while Birthright participants are more likely to belong to a Jewish congregation, to have a special meal on Shabbat, or to celebrate Jewish holidays, “the effects were small.”

This is not to take away from the “life-changing” experience that some Birthright participants have had, and indeed there are other ways to measure the success of these trips. Positive, statistically-significant findings can be found in the same study. Many participants report significantly elevated feelings toward Israel and the Jewish community upon their return, and many say they feel positive about being Jewish. The study also reports a significant increase in in-marriage among trip participants, though it cannot control for the bias of predisposition: namely how much more likely are those willing to participate in a long-term Israel program to in-marry generally. All of this is true, yet … with more than 330,000 young adults having participated in this trip at a cost of $3,000 per participant, the time to ask the now $1,000,000,000 question has come: Is feeling positive about being Jewish – without translating those feelings into action – worth a billion dollar expenditure of Jewish communal resources?

Take young Jews, 18-26, on a free trip to Israel and they will return rededicated to Jewish life, says the conventional wisdom. This model would have worked a generation ago. Jewish identity for the baby boomers – those funding Birthright – was built around memories of the Holocaust and a visceral defense of the State of Israel against the enemies seeking its destruction. Supporting Israel was a way to show, and in fact to be, Jewish. For too many millennials, though, and particularly those on the margins of Jewish life, the Holocaust is ancient history and Israel is seen as the aggressor rather than the underdog. These core elements, which once drove Jews toward Jewish life, are no longer the predominate reasons to be Jewish. Motivations are fundamentally different than they were just one generation ago, and our models of engagement need to change accordingly.

If we want to ensure vibrant Jewish life, and with it strong American Jewish support for Israel, from among my generation, we need to invest more philanthropic dollars domestically in programs that reach the hearts of our 20-somethings. Social justice. Meaningful relationships taken offline. A moral existence beyond concern for the self. Judaism that can experienced and lived in the here and now rather than while on vacation, confined within the borders of the State of Israel.

This winter, the Jewish community in North American, Israel, and around the world will reach the billion dollar mark in our support of Birthright Israel. Are the positive feelings that have been generated about being Jewish – without translating those feelings into action – worth such a significant expenditure of resources? Let’s try spending the same money domestically and see what happens. What won’t happen is an erosion of support for Israel. Al ha’hefech – to the contrary: support for the Jewish State in my generation comes more often from a strong Jewish identity than Jewish identity comes from supporting the State of Israel. When young Jews are engaged Jewishly, they will pay us to visit the Jewish homeland, and the dynamic will again be right-side up.

Rabbi Aaron Meyer is the Assistant Rabbi at Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Seattle, WA.