What does it mean, “Are Jewish presidents of colleges ready for Birthright alumni?”

Crossposted to New Voices

On Tuesday, Nov. 23 Hebrew College is hosting a conversation with four Boston-area Jewish presidents of colleges: Rabbi Daniel L. Lehmann of Hebrew College, Leonard A. Schlesinger of Babson College, Jehuda Reinharz of Brandies University and Lawrence S. Bacow of Tufts University.

I’ve got universities on the brain lately as my own Drew has recently intensified our so-far lackluster work on our “Strategic Plan.” So this event caught my eye.

The HC website lists these questions as up for discussion at the event:

  • How will colleges and universities meet the challenges of the shifting paradigms in higher education?
  • What should their roles be in developing the next generation of Jewish leadership?
  • Students who have experienced Birthright Israel are ready for more engagement with Israel and with Jewish life; are we ready for them?
  • What aspects of higher education should the Jewish community support?

The first, second and fourth questions sound great. The third one is giving me some trouble.

First of all, it acknowledges a premise that I reject: that the Birthright is the source of engaged young Jews in America. It’s part of the clod of notions that spring forth from the idea that young Jews, especially college Jews, are not engaged with Jewish life, and that the only way to engage them is through Israel.

Second of all, and even more narrow-sighted, is this problem: Do any of these college presidents think that the only source of engaged Jewish students at their institutions is Birthright? If they’re focused on “are we ready for them [Birthright alumni]?” how is that going to affect their readiness for Jewish students engaged with Jewish life in some other way? And what does it even mean that they need to be ready?

These questions are not meant as rhetorical, by the way. I’m looking for y’all’s ideas on this. So if anyone goes to this, I’d love to hear how it goes.

40 Responses to “What does it mean, “Are Jewish presidents of colleges ready for Birthright alumni?””

  1. I think you are reading an exclusivity into the questions that aren’t there. The question isn’t about Birthright as “the” source, it’s about Birthright as “a” source — and whether you like it or not, Birthright IS a big source of young Jews looking to be engaged in Jewish life.


    dlevy · November 18th, 2010 at 3:09 pm
  2. “I think you are reading an exclusivity into the questions that aren’t there…and whether you like it or not, Birthright IS a big source of young Jews looking to be engaged in Jewish life.”

    I agree 100%.

    I never participated in Birthright, but I have encountered A LOT of people who connected or reconnected with Judaism as a result of their BR experience in Israel. Including people that became BT (and have stayed frum) after their trips.

    Curious as to all the hate BR receives, beyond the garden variety two-week-party-bus rants.


    curious · November 18th, 2010 at 3:46 pm
  3. Is birthright the only source of engaged young Jews? No, and it doesn’t seem that they question suggests that.

    Is birthright an experience that gets some young, engaged Jews interested in becoming involved in Jewish life or leadership? As a recent grad and former campus Jewish leader, I’d say yes- I got a lot of calls and emails from students just back from their two weeks and looking for ways to connect.

    I think that talking about ways to reach out to post-Birthright students, to help them connect their experiences in Israel (positive, negative, whatever) to their larger Jewish identity and everyday life is a great idea.

    However, it is an oddly specific question in relation to the other three, which may be part of why it feels exclusive to you. There are no other questions about Jewish student engagement–are their colleges and universities ready for students who’ve had transformative experiences at Jewish Farm School, or a NUJLS conference, or anywhere else (or who haven’t)? I think the Jewish community would be best served by a “both…and” approach here.


    Sarah · November 18th, 2010 at 5:18 pm
  4. The question isn’t about Birthright as “the” source, it’s about Birthright as “a” source — and whether you like it or not, Birthright IS a big source of young Jews looking to be engaged in Jewish life.

    No argument that BR is a big source. My argument is with the notion that’s the one worth mentioning. Why is the question what to do with students who are engaged with Jewish life because of BR rather than what do with Jewish students who are engaged with Jewish life?

    Curious as to all the hate BR receives.

    I’m not in the camp that thinks BR is just plain bad. My problem is that the Jewish community has put (almost) all of its eggs in that basket as far as retaining young Jews goes. On a list of my biggest sources of connection with Jewish life, I don’t think Israel would rank in the top five. There are people who have a connection now because of BR and that’s good. But we’re not serving the people who never go on BR because it doesn’t interest them or the people who come back from BR still disconnected.

    There are no other questions about Jewish student engagement–are their colleges and universities ready for students who’ve had transformative experiences at Jewish Farm School, or a NUJLS conference, or anywhere else (or who haven’t)? I think the Jewish community would be best served by a “both…and” approach here.

    This is exactly my point, Sarah. Thanks for putting it far more cleverly than I did!


    David A.M. Wilensky · November 18th, 2010 at 7:29 pm
  5. Try substituting ‘Birthright Alumni’ with something else. Does it work? I agree that there are few programs of the same scale and scope as Birthright, but the jury is really still out on its impact. Despite 10 years of participants, we haven’t seen the full arc of its impact.

    Are most participants becoming Baal Tshuva? Some yes, but most no. Are most participants more connected to the Jewish people? To a degree, perhaps, but we wont really know until *their* children are of this age. Are some BRI alumni exploring internal questions of identity ? Yes, and the data shows more than in a control group.

    Its not the overwhelming majority, however, nor is it the exclusive source of renewed interest in Jewish identity. Chabad could easily have a similar role in it. When the core of prime ‘Next’ targets are viewed as part of the whole cohort of participants and non, they are still a minority among their peers.

    In this more nuanced context, the question seems pointed, peculiar and out of place. A better question might be,

    “Young adults who participate in a wide range of activities that deepen their relationship to Jewish heritage and its global family are poised to go even further. How can Colleges help them fulfill their desire to do so through self-directed, informal and academic means, and how can the Jewish community help the Colleges, and in turn the students, to realize Jewish values and identity?”

    Semester and year programs like those offered via MASA and Otzma might be an answer. But so are other outlets like JTS, AJWS, JDC, Avodah, Hillel Internships, Yeshivot, etc. Is there is a MASA equivalent for non-Israel programs?


    adam davis · November 18th, 2010 at 7:51 pm
  6. Actually I have a problem with the first question.

    Anyone who uses the word ‘paradigm’ obviously thinks in buzzwords, and ten year old ones at that.

    What? No ‘thinking outside the box’?

    When do Hebrew College and Brandeis close up anyhow?


    Dave Boxthorn · November 18th, 2010 at 8:34 pm
  7. @DAW — “But we’re not serving the people who never go on BR because it doesn’t interest them or the people who come back from BR still disconnected.” I agree, but I think this demographic is simply more challenging to identify and connect with and target. Unfortunately, it’s probably *more* important to connect with people in this slice since their needs are not being addressed.

    @ adam davis — “Its not the overwhelming majority, however, nor is it the exclusive source of renewed interest in Jewish identity. Chabad could easily have a similar role in it.” Amen. And this ties back into Wilensky’s comment.

    Chabad is amazing at connecting with Jews that have been ignored by or are disenchanted with other streams of Judaism. This is primarily done I think through the sheer numbers of Jews that shliuchim approach and make themselves available to. I think Chabad sets a good example in this respect; Chabad just *being there* makes a huge difference for people who have a thirst for Judaism.


    curious · November 19th, 2010 at 12:18 pm
  8. Adam, WORD.

    Curious, sure. But I’m still suspicious of Chabad at all times.


    David A.M. Wilensky · November 19th, 2010 at 1:10 pm
  9. I’m still suspicious of Chabad at all times.

    Even at 2:06am?


    Victor · November 19th, 2010 at 1:16 pm
  10. For the record, Hillel could also play an equal role and does on many campuses. I dont want to slight them. Some of my best friends are Hillel professionals… (wait, is that a slight)


    adam davis · November 19th, 2010 at 4:40 pm
  11. Victor, if I’m awake and someone mentions Chabad, you can expect suspicion on my part.


    David A.M. Wilensky · November 19th, 2010 at 4:59 pm
  12. I’m willing to bet Wilensky has had little (if any) interaction with Chabad, ever.


    curious · November 20th, 2010 at 8:50 pm
  13. I’m willing to bet Wilensky has had little (if any) interaction with Chabad, ever.

    When you talk about me in the third person in a comment on my own post, it’s like referring to someone you’re having a conversation with in the third person.

    And, without telling you anything about my interaction with Chabad, what do you know about my interaction with Chabad?


    David A.M. Wilensky · November 20th, 2010 at 9:50 pm
  14. I don’t know anything abt your interaction with Chabad. Except that your “suspicious of [them] at all times,” which frankly makes absolutely no sense and leads me to believe you’ve never stepped foot in a Chabad house in your life.


    curious · November 20th, 2010 at 10:24 pm
  15. It is a rather odd way to speak about people, DAWM. At least people who aren’t carrying machetes at their side, with a history of decapitating human beings at random. Just saw Predators. The IDF girl lives!


    Victor · November 21st, 2010 at 12:03 am
  16. I’m suspicious of the motives of anyone who has an agenda to convince me of something, but isn’t up-front about it.


    David A.M. Wilensky · November 21st, 2010 at 1:20 am
  17. What is Chabad’s agenda that they are not being up front about? What did Chabad surreptitiously attempt to convince you of, David?


    curious · November 21st, 2010 at 2:22 am
  18. Chabad is an evangelizing group. They want Jews who are not observant in the way that they are to become like them. Is this news to anyone? Or am I being led on a bizarre rhetorical chase?


    David A.M. Wilensky · November 21st, 2010 at 12:50 pm
  19. not only that, but much of Chabad has stepped outside of normative Judaism by changing liturgy and practice to incorporate a theology that believes in a dying and rising messiah–heresy to the highest degree.


    Justin · November 21st, 2010 at 2:41 pm
  20. I think Chabad is very up front about their mission to get more Jews to perform more mitzvos. I don’t think there’s any subterfuge with regard to that. (Not sure how they’d hide that with tefillin on the street and lulav-esrog shaking type activities — its pretty obvious they’re out there trying to get Jews to do mitzvos.)

    As far as Chabad trying to get people to daven a certain way or subscribe to a specific messianic worldview, I find that people who have never interacted with Chabad greatly exaggerate and/or distort this aspect of Chabad.

    Which is why I asked about your interaction with Chabad, David, and your generic anti-Chabad response.


    curious · November 21st, 2010 at 3:05 pm
  21. Justin, please provide some examples. I’ve been involved with Chabad for nearly a decade and can’t think of a change in liturgy such as what you describe.


    Victor · November 21st, 2010 at 3:38 pm
  22. Yechi?


    BZ · November 21st, 2010 at 3:49 pm
  23. Right, I’ve heard of this, but after a decade, I still don’t know what it means. I suppose I could look it up in wikipedia, but why should I? It’s not relevant to me. Me, who has attended daily minyan, hundreds of farbrengans, thousands of classes, weddings, brises, went twice to a chabad yeshiva, has best friends who have become rabbis, etc. I’m still waiting to discover this inner dark, unholy secret life of Chabad that Justin is talking about.


    Victor · November 21st, 2010 at 4:47 pm
  24. Curious says, “ts pretty obvious they’re out there trying to get Jews to do mitzvos.”

    I think it would be more accurate to say they’re out there trying to get Jews to perform ritual acts. We don’t hear much about their involvement with mitzvos of tzedaka (other than contributions to Chabad) or social justice. If their “product” leads to Postville, all the rest is commentary.


    Larry Kaufman · November 21st, 2010 at 5:04 pm
  25. Victor-
    It’s not such a secret. Have you been to 770?


    BZ · November 21st, 2010 at 5:20 pm
  26. i didn’t say it was inner, or dark or secret. but that the leadership of chabad is pretty open about their belief that the rebbe is the messiah, that he will rise again to finish the messianic signs, and that they have made alterations to the liturgy to instill that theology, like BZ said, it’s not so secret…


    Justin · November 21st, 2010 at 5:32 pm
  27. יחי אדמו”ר מלך המושיח לעולם ועד
    yehi admor (adoneinu, moreinu u’rabeinu) melekh ha’moshiah l’olam va’ed
    May our lord our teacher our rabbi live, the king messiah, forever and ever.


    Justin · November 21st, 2010 at 5:38 pm
  28. What page of the Tehillas Hashem siddur is this blessing found Justin?


    Victor · November 21st, 2010 at 5:52 pm
  29. La kashya: there are Meshichist and non-Meshichist factions of Chabad.


    BZ · November 21st, 2010 at 6:01 pm
  30. I’m really glad we’re talking about this. Because the post was obviously meant to be all about Chabad.


    David A.M. Wilensky · November 21st, 2010 at 6:10 pm
  31. I’d like make a point, which should be obvious, but perhaps isn’t. Just because Chabad’s leadership doesn’t condemn the meshichistes on the pages of the NY Times, or to the satisfaction of YU, or that they choose to deal with fellow Jews as brothers, in an internal way, instead of savaging them in public, doesn’t mean they condone the movement. I don’t know how often you go to 770, BZ. I tend to get there around once a year, maybe twice, and to me the yellow flags are a strange curiosity, as they are to most chabadniks. We are instructed not to argue with them, not to talk to them, to throw their literature in the garbage, not to even offer them rides to the ohel.

    As so often happens on Jewschool, people speak with a lot of knowledge and very little understanding.


    Victor · November 21st, 2010 at 6:12 pm
  32. Your ridiculous Chabad-phobia is what brought all this up, David. Deal with it.


    Victor · November 21st, 2010 at 6:13 pm
  33. @Justin: if anything, Chabad is “resurrecting” a Jewish idea that pre-dates Christianity: www.amazon.com/Messiah-before-Jesus-Suffering-Foundation/dp/0520234006


    tzachi0 · November 22nd, 2010 at 7:46 am
  34. Right, ok. That’s how you know it’s hatred. The lack of reason.


    Victor · November 22nd, 2010 at 8:49 am
  35. Getting just a little of track here aren’t we? I dont condemn chabad- far from it.


    adam davis · November 22nd, 2010 at 11:59 am
  36. Your ridiculous Chabad-phobia is what brought all this up, David. Deal with it.

    Someone else brought up Chabad. I mentioned that I’m suspicious of them. Then you were off and running.

    We disagree about Chabad. That’s OK.


    David A.M. Wilensky · November 22nd, 2010 at 12:20 pm
  37. I’m personally suspicious of anyone who walks up to strangers on the street and asks them if they’re Jewish.

    I don’t care how black your hat is, that’s suspicious behavior.


    Balaam's Donkey · November 22nd, 2010 at 1:23 pm
  38. @tzachi,
    I don’t know what the book says, but I can comfortably say that I am incredibly familiar with the rabbinic messianic narrative and there is a dying messiah, moshiah ben yosef, and a messiah which finishes the job, moshiah ben david. the suffering messiah is a biblical motif, to be sure, but a dying and rising messiah in one individual is not a rabbinic concept.


    Justin · November 22nd, 2010 at 8:23 pm
  39. Speaking of which, Justin, did you find that page in Tehillas Hashem siddur where the “alterations to the liturgy” is found? Post up the “before” and “after”, will you? All this proof, and we’ve yet to see the pudding, from any of you.

    DAWM is just suspicious, but he doesn’t know why or feel that he has to explain himself. I guess that’s just how some people feel about Jews, and Muslims, and blacks. When it feels right, it just feels right, eh? It’s enough to disagree? What are we disagreeing about, DAWM? Just admit that you don’t like chabad – you don’t like their style, their dress, their attitude, their confidence, whatever. You don’t think they’re heretics – you don’t know enough to say that – you just don’t like them. I guess that would include me. You don’t like me, and you don’t need a reason. Fine.

    Mr. Donkey Kong… ok, at least he gave a reason, black hat fetish notwithstanding.

    adam davis, I didn’t direct any comments to you.

    as for tzachi, well, let’s just say my comment to you is still pending.

    Hope everyone is having a nice start to the week.


    Victor · November 22nd, 2010 at 10:38 pm
  40. The number of Birthright trips available to colleges has dramatically dropped within the last few years, thanks to the number of previous contributors to the BR program whom also had money invested with Madoff and the likes. Thus the correlation between Jewish college students “ready for more involvement with Israel” and those who went on a BR trip only represents a small percentage of Jewish students interested in Israel. The argument could be made that those students who seem to make colleges nervous have adopted the Zionist attitude of their own volition. Organizations on campus like Hillel are much more likely to house those types of students than those who are able to go on a BR trip. Think about the time and commitment it takes to be involved in an organization on campus while having other work to do as a college student, versus a ten-day almost entirely free vacation to Israel. If Jewish universities should be concerned about being ready for anyone, it should be the active Jewish students already thriving on college campuses across the country.


    dropkin · November 26th, 2010 at 6:40 pm

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