Identity, Israel, Politics

Have a Schwarma, Save the Jews?

This is a guest post by Sara Beth Berman. Sara Beth is a graduate of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at JTS.  An avid waterskiier, she got into Jewish education because she wanted to drive a boat for a summer.  Now, she has completed an MA thesis on teaching Israel in North American Jewish summer camps, and spent a year living in Israel.  You can see her snarky comments about her Israel year on her blog.
Yesterday morning, while it seemed like the majority of the Jewish world was at JStreet, I set out to the Brandeis House in NYC to join a small group hearing about the results of the latest Leonard Saxe, et. al. study, “Generation Birthright Israel: The Impact of an Israel Experience on Jewish Identity and Choices.” Read the study for yourself here.
Taglit-Birthright Israel is a huge undertaking, with nearly 225,000 people having gone to Israel through their trips since 1999. Seventy-three percent of the participants saw the trip as either “very much” or “somewhat” of a life-changing experience. Large percentages left the program feeling connected to Israel and say they are now able to engage in a conversation about the current situation in Israel. The presenters joked about moving Taglit to Cancun, and jokingly lamented that a trip to Cancun wouldn’t yield the same sort of results in terms of Jewish engagement.
It should be noted that this study was funded by Taglit-Birthright Israel, and, thankfully, the potential bias was addressed. Saxe noted that the supporters of the study, including Taglit, allowed for independent, objective, and even-handed investigation. I had recognized that as a potential area to compose snark, and I was pleased (or, more accurately, somewhat disappointed) that Saxe himself addressed the Taglit-as-funder issue.
After sitting down, the research team gave us the survey results, including the intermarriage statistic that has been examined everywhere from Wall Street Journal headlines to a snarky interpretation on Gawker Media’s Jezebel, and a thoughtful piece in the blog e-Jewish Philanthropy. At last! The cure to the scourge of intermarriage! Me-of-15-years-ago would be so pleased to hear this!
Jews from a wide range of backgrounds, representing unaffiliated and all denominations, are engaging with Israel and their Jewish identity, because any engagement with any fragment of Jewish life is a positive step. Barry Shrage of Boston’s CJP stated in his presentation that this is a tipping point moment, after 10 years of Taglit. The study indicates that Taglit is a chance to leave a legacy, to make an impact on worldwide Jewry, just by sending the 18- to 26-year-old cohort on a free trip to Israel. Regardless of one’s politics, this is the time to tip toward engagement with one’s own Jewish identity through whatever route one chooses. If a 10-day trip to Israel is the way to do it, I’m all for it. Pass me a schwarma.

37 thoughts on “Have a Schwarma, Save the Jews?

  1. Allow me to call this BS:
    “Jews from a wide range of backgrounds, representing unaffiliated and all denominations, are engaging with Israel and their Jewish identity, because any engagement with any fragment of Jewish life is a positive step.”
    Actually, we are at a moral crisis tipping point, and the brainwashing on most (not all) of the Birthright trips are strengthening the side of the Nakba deniers, our own version of holocaust revisionism.
    How dare the continuity mavens reduce it to a breeding program for American tourists.
    ‘Jews occupied Palestine, created 3/4 million refugees and turned us into a militaristic people aligned with US imperialism. But at least I learned to love bumping uglies with my own kind!’

  2. All I can say is BARF!!
    This shit makes me so nauseous. The combination of blind and vapid zionism with racist obsessions about Jewish babies is really just gross. Thank G!d for independent Jewish culture. If all we had was the race obsessed Zionist establishment Judaism and Jewish culture would be a sorry place to be.
    Birthright Israel (and the Cohen Center) can go f*ck themselves!!!
    Ok, I feel better now. Glad I got that off my chest.
    On a more substantive note.. “any engagement with any fragment of Jewish life is a positive step”? Are you kidding? Jewishness has no essential value. Its just one cultural formation among many. This does not mean it is not-valuable, just that it is only valuable in relation to particular ends. Making the world better, making ones life meaningful, promoting ethnic hegemony, etc. Promoting vapid Jewish identity lishma is not really going to work. Once someone asks “why” and you’ve got no better answer than “well, folks have been called Jew (Israelite, Judean, etc) for 3,000 years, so we might as well keep at it, hopefully this Jewihsness lishma shit will just pack up and go home.
    Ugh! Why is the OJC so f*cking stupid!?!

  3. Well, I fail to see a downside in sending the kids to Israel. We need more programs like it, and fewer people ranting against it.

  4. You fail to see the downside? We are pouring millions of philanthropic dollars into a program who two main goals/outcomes are a disneyfied israel (with the occupation safely hidden away) and promotion of racialized breeding. Neither of those are positive cultural developments.

  5. Chorus of Apes writes: “We are pouring millions of philanthropic dollars.”
    Really? “We” usually means me along with others with whom I stand.
    Unless Chorus is one of the few mega-wealthy Jews who pay for most of this program – I believe his statement to be false.”We are not paying. The wealthy Jews who see value in this program (and I am a non-affluent Jew who sees value in this program)are doing so.It does not mean that those funds would be directed elsewhere as they do not come from general funding.

  6. CofA writes: “This does not mean it is not-valuable, just that it is only valuable in relation to particular ends. Making the world better, making ones life meaningful, promoting ethnic hegemony, etc. Promoting vapid Jewish identity lishma is not really going to work.”
    I hope your not suggesting that the goals of engagement with Judaism is the universalizing of Jewish values into humanistic values? If Birthright were to espouse some of the Jewish expressions of these values would that make you more or less comfortable? My biggest beef with these kinds of programs/trips is that they fail to see the nuance.

  7. @Meir: Actually, you *are* paying – since the Federations were strongarmed into paying for big chunks of Birthright, anything you donate to Federation is likely to be sending money to Birthright. Moreover, lot s of programs which you might have supported get less now because of this.
    But, while I think there are lots of big problems with Birthright, and I wonder why exactly it is that we need a rah-rah guestpost on why Birthright is great, since it doens’t really add anything new, I do take exception to the endogamy as racia
    l comments.
    The goal of Judaism as CoA implies ( I’m agreeing with CoA, weird.) is not Tikkun Olam (Whatever that means) or universal human values, or what have you – it’s developing a relationship with God as a people and as individuals simultaneously. Now, the fact is that to do so requires us to engage in mitzvot of varied types, which include a wide spectrum of mitzvot bein adam l’chavero – i.e. g’milut chasadim (the correct Jewish terminology for doing good in the world) as well as mitzvot bein adam l’makom – obligations between human and God.
    But endogamy in the context of someone living a Jewish life is first of all unrelated to race (Jews may be a nation, but we’re certainly not a race – we come in an awful lot of colors – perhaps even all of them) and second of all, endogamy promotes the values of Judaism in a way that’s very difficult to achieve in an exogamous relationship, since when one marries outside the covenant, the laws of Moses and Israel (as is mentioned in the marriage ceremony) only apply to one partner.
    I will say, though, if the ONLY point of endogamy is itself, then, okay. In-marriage can’t be its only point – it has to be a step on the path to living a fully Jewish life (whatever you define that to mean).

  8. I was kinda hoping for a snarky post… Anyway, KRG nails it. CoA is stuck in Palestine worship. Oh no, we Jews had to pick up guns to defend ourselves! GUNS! The humanity! Mommyyyyyy!!!! WaAAAAAAAA! American imperialism! WaAAAAAA! The good savages were displaced! WaAAAAAAAAAA! CoA your words are a hypercliche of international humanities majors.

  9. We’ve had this conversation many times before, and I can’t believe I’m actually going to say something positive about Birthright, but many of the trips address Palestine and injustices facing Palestinians. To the extent that I would like? No. Is the “occupation safely hidden away”? No.

  10. To address the question of why this was handled by a guest-poster: Brandeis chose to hold their briefing in NYC on a Monday morning during working hours that also coincided with the JStreet Conference in Washington, DC. Most of our NYC-based JewSchoolers were either working or at JStreet. I would have gladly covered this had Brandeis held the event at Brandeis.

  11. Avigdor, did you just actually call the arabs living in Palestine before Israel came back into existence SAVAGES? Not to mention the hyper-cliche of your own exhibited in your “WWHHHHAAAAA mommmyyy” drivel.
    CoA and Meir Eiynaim, by “We” I assume we mean Jews.
    And KRG, I wouldn’t go assuming the Meir pays into the Federations at all. I never have and neither of my parents are members of the on in Austin that I grew up with either.

  12. @David – in a sense, that’s too bad – Federation does a lot of wonderful things with their money. OTOH, they;re also extremely dinosaurish, and as is evidenced by Birthright, open to being strongarmed by large donors into running programs of dubious or no (and of course, good, but that’s less likely) value.
    Still,it makes me sad that people don’t give money to federations and try to fix them, rather than letting them die slow and ignominious death (how often do I get to use that word?)
    I wonder who will fund or seed fund for places like Beit Tshuvah and Ikar when the Federations go under.

  13. Here’s the thing about birthright. Is it an ideal educational experience? No. But it is effective as a catalyst to inspire young people to seek out new Jewish connections in their lives once they return? This study says yes. There hasn’t been any other program or institution aimed at this demographic with such demonstrable success. (When was the last time anyone did a long-term impact study on Hillel? I’d love to see a comparison.)
    But even those of us who are cynical lefties or Jewish educators hoping for deeper engagement with content or, in my case, both have to acknowledge that Birthright has kept the door open for many people to access the meaningful Jewish content and experiences that they might have otherwise never even looked at before their trip. Of course, this is why the disappointment that is Birthright NEXT stings so sharply.

  14. The WSJ article says “Its results showed that 72% of those who went on the trip married within the faith, compared with 46% of people who applied for the trip but weren’t selected in a lottery.” Finally it’s an intermarriage study that attempts to account for self-selection bias! But it doesn’t go all the way — how do we know that the people who went on the trip didn’t previously apply unsuccessfully too? Perhaps people who are already inclined to marry Jews are also inclined to be more persistent about applying for the trip.

  15. It should also be noted that there are many “denominational” trips, for which one does not have to enter a lottery.

  16. Not only are our Federation dollars paying for birthright, all Federation activities for the under-40 set have been totally coopted by birthright. Every event/fellowship/discounted ticket/opportunity is directed to “birthright alumni,” often exclusively.
    I’ve said it before- not everyone goes on birthright. A lot of people did BBYO or paid there own way for substantive programs that made them ineligible for birthright. Others simply chose not to go. Stop shutting us out. How does being a birthright alum- something open to virtually everyone- elevate you above other Jews or make you more qualified to participate in activities in the Jewish community?

  17. The study indicates that Taglit is a chance to leave a legacy, to make an impact on worldwide Jewry, just by sending the 18- to 26-year-old cohort on a free trip to Israel.
    This sounds like the mother of all bunk. If we took the 18- to 26-year-old cohort and gave them a free bus ticket across the US, we would also be making an impact on worldwide jewry. In fact, if we gave each of them a lapel pin, we would be making an impact on worldwide jewry (all Jews would have lapel pins!). It’s not enough to make an impact. In fact, the impact is probably detrimental in the long run because it kills any desire to create a meaningful Jewish experience in a Chutz-Laaretz context.
    Israel is not a Jewish state. It is a state with many Jews. Also many other kinds of people. And it has a death grip on 2 million other people. Plus 1.5 Million in Gaza.

  18. Ok, perhaps I need to disagregate my criticism. I know that lots of folks think inculcating a love of israel ISA good thing. I disagree, but don’t need to press the issue. My other two points, about Jewishness lishma and the obesession over Jewish babies are linked, and it is those issues I want to address here.
    The post assumes, as do many of the comments, that any individual’s Jewish identity and the Jewish identity of future unborn children is a good thing on it’s own. I don’t think that is a supportable assumption. On what grounds is it better to be a jew (or to think of oneself as a jew) than a non-jew? If being Jewish is not better than being non-Jewish, we need to think about where the good lies. Then, we can promote that good, rather than Jewish identity for it’s own sake. In a way, while I disagree strongly with chabad, at least they are clear on the point of Jewish identity (for them). The trouble with birthright and the whole mishigas over intermarriage is that Jewish is promoted no matter what its contents. This is a problem because it does not allow us to discriminate. There are forms of Jewishness we should promote, because they do good things in people’s lives and in the world. And there are forms of Jewishness we should oppose, because they do bad things in the world. This way, we need to be talking about values, not identity.

  19. Having read the executive summary (I still don’t have time yet to read the whole thing), what really worries me is not the money, which frankly, I am not sure these mega-donors would want to give to synagogues, federations, AJWS, or other worthy Jewish causes anyway. What worries me, above all, is the lack of follow-up and partnerships that Taglit has with other American Jewish organizations–which would help take the enthusiasm and excitement that these young inspired Jews have as a result of the trip–and which could turn into productive Jewish community building.
    What is the American Jewish community doing to hold on to these future leaders? Birthright is not equipped, nor does it have the resources, to do extensive follow-up with all of its alumni and to help find ways to constructively plug them in to the Jewish community here. Birthright can only be successful as a means to an end; but if it is the end, and they aren’t connected into the Jewish community in the years ahead, then the $ is truly going to waste.
    Birthright follow-up, while admirable, has not been nearly as successful as it could be just because of the sheer volume of people who go. American Jewish organizations, religious denominations, etc. should be dying to get these alumni through their doors. Why not create partnerships to help equip and train these new and young Jewish enthusiasts to be America’s future Jewish leaders? And why not get them while they are inspired?

  20. Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt (and other private donors) as well as the Israeli government fund most of Birthright. Yes, small amounts come from some local Fererations. But Chorus is just plain wrong about “we” being the ones who fund Birthright. It is almost entirely private individuals and the Israeli government who do so.
    Yet-I would be pleased to see more community funding. But it is just not there.

  21. CoA, I think there is inherent value to Jewishness, in the same way that there is inherent value to Irishness or lesbianism or being Deaf. Individuals are born, adopted, and self-selected into communities and cultures that help give context, meaning, and shape to the world and their experiences in it. One doesn’t have to think one’s own group is better than others to see its value and hope that others within the group might take pride in being part of the group. This is multiculturalism 101.

  22. ME is correct. The board is made up of around 30 people who are the also the primary donors to the organization and a handful of other big donors. You can see who they are and who else they are affiliated with here:
    it’s fascinating. It includes the CEO of Slim-Fast, a casino mogul, regents and trustees of universities, a Hollywood director and all sorts of Federation folk and other “mainstream” orgs. check it out. worthwhile.

  23. Dlevy, I agree 100% with your description of Judaism, but if that is the case we should be happy when Jews find their way to meaningful communities, even if they are not Jewish. Birthright, and the continuity folks, do not say, we hope people are living meaningful lives, maybe Judaism can provide that. They are saying, we want more Jews! Thus the organizing questions of the study cited above, and the celebration of the finding that birthright = more Jewish marriages and babies.

  24. To Chorus: You state “Birthright, and the continuity folks, do not say, we hope people are living meaningful lives.”
    This is so silly. Just read the publications and essays by those who fund Birthright and the other causes they fund.
    And, yes, one paramiter was intermarriage rates. But that was far from the only effect being checked.
    You don’t care for Birthright-fine.
    But be honest in your analysis.

  25. First, birthright is an amazing program that i am lucky to have gone on. Such that i feel a responsibility to address some criticism mentioned.
    I amazed that such an article can spark tirades of ignorant people. This does not include criticism of lack of post-birthright programming like Israel Next or why Federations should give some money then to needy organizations like Magen David Odan that make a tangible difference in helping sick people.
    As a college student who went on this trip 3 summers ago, i can honestly say i have gone from no Jewish identity to being perhaps the biggest Jewish student leader on my campus. Since that trip i have gone back every summer on other similar paid trips.
    So where is the pay off?
    If your pro-israel/zionist its obvious, all my older cousins have no connection with Israel and all my cousins or friends that have gone do have such a connection. Which is very important start fighting the growing anti-semitsm (not distorting anti-semitism with anti-zionism) on campuses.
    Also, as i mentioned before, it creates a stronger Jewish identity. With a stronger Jewish identity i have increased my volunteering and community leadership involvement exponentially. I am tempted to continue repling to why have a Jewish identity criticism more, but those that have it or know of it know the motivation of Tikkum Olam that goes with it. Besides, the attempt to brush of the indifference does not hide the A-s word.But i will add why Jewish babies 1) thats what a lot of people of tried killing us thought, why more Jews 2)how can you follow mitzvah without a Jewish household? 3) Israeli women, trust me 3 motivates 1 and 2 as it should since its women that have continuously saved judiasm in our history.
    Federations should support this. Why because Judaism is polarizing with the left intermarrying out. If they want to invest in their own futures they should support birthright and help the maturation of post-birthright groups like Israel Next. So, if this is your only criticism i think you should meet with your local Federation or JCC and give time and your own expertise developing programming at your community level.
    Don’t worry all you people who are like why not help other people. Well i would say a majority, my campus near entirely, help with Save Darfur initiative and we also gave some 30% of all humanitarian add on private sector for New Orleans and were like what 1.7% of the population.
    Lastly, i am a pre-med( enjoy that one for some of our negative viewers) so excuse the quick and grammar ridden response to some critiques on birthright. I had to do this quickly for my Islam midterm from Mughals to Ottomans is tomorrow. That means last third of an introductory Islamic history class in on Israel and Arab nationalism. Oh, and on shabbos( started going to diner since i went to the kotel on birthright) i well make a lechhim to Jewish babies.
    In all seriousness, thank to anyone who donated to Birthright, i hope i was able to give back the investment you put in me. Thank you!
    The Pre-Med Student

    1. Rick G writes:
      But i will add why Jewish babies 1) thats what a lot of people of tried killing us thought, why more Jews
      Well, who can argue with that?

  26. Rick,
    My experience parallels yours, strongly, both pre, during and post-Birthright. I have one suggestion for you – activism is wonderful, but you will be more of an asset to Israel, the Jewish people, your family and to yourself as a professinoal doctor than as a professional activist.
    If you can synthesize activism and your studies, great. I have seen wonderful people on strong professional tracks lose their head and throw themselves into activism, losing touch with their long term professional goals.
    This conflict will continue for years. The first and foremost contribution you can make is to finish your university studies, go on to medical school, and continue your development as a proud Jew who understands his identity.
    I’m telling you from first hand experience. Get your school work done first. Activism can wait.

  27. Chorus I am glad I could oblige. And thank you for choosing to call us apes. I feel like it’s a worthy reference you place on us. I am amazed your so educated in Jewish literature to have utillized Kafka’s ” a report to the academy.” I always envied the way in so simple a metaphor apes symbolize the inabillity for Jews to be fully accepted. Although, you come of as someone who would should have used a mouse reference. Still, I wonder at such a large claim that ” Jewishness has no value.” I am a strong believer in following what you say and believe in. So, I think you would feel better about yourself if you research anything that might be Jewish and avoid it like the plaque. Let me know if you need help. I might suggest you tell your boss you will be coming in on weekends unless people think u may be remembering the sabbath.
    And to avigdor, please don’t worry for me. I fine my “actism” ,among many personal benifits, represents a passion that med schools love seeing. So, I am not straying from that path.
    To everyone else please excuse lowering of my maturity and answering coa. This added some fun to my studing and perhaps if I post comments in the future I will try to follow others mature examples.

  28. Dear Friends:
    I question the statistical accuracy of the study. It directly contradicts a study released earlier this year — by Birthright — saying that the Birthright programs had had virtually no impact in getting Birthright participants to participate in the Jewish community upon their return from Israel.
    Also the report claims that the trips even lower the intermarriage rate among adult children of intermarriage — yet the sample is statistically insignificant — only 17 children of intermarriage participated in the study who went on the trip — out of thousands of trip participants in the early years of Birthright.
    How could such a tiny sample be considered valid?
    Here’s the link to the report released in March:
    How could the disinterested participants described in the first report suddenly be transformed in the newly-zealous Jews of the second report? Something is wrong.
    Robin Margolis

  29. Rick, you are totally missing my point. I did not say Jewishness had no value, I said, (and I quote) “Jewishness has no essential value. It’s just one cultural formation among many. This does not mean it is not-valuable, just that it is only valuable in relation to particular ends.” They key word in that quote is essential not value. The problem is not with Jewish identity, but with assuming Jewish identity is a good in itself, rather than a pathway to some other good.

  30. I’m with Chorus of Apes here.
    If you’re lucky enough to belong to a Jewish community and be under a certain age, there’s at least a slim hope of getting indoctrinated into the whole “my Israel, right or wrong” mindset.
    For the rest of us — too, too poor, too unconnected to Jewish community (though still living Jewishly, thank you), there’s not a hell of a lot. And because I am all of the above I must say I’m grateful. Grateful to have missed out on Birthright and especially grateful to be FREE from all that noise so I can see many sides to Israel and form my own opinions about whether a connection to israel is even worth sustaining. Can I be Jewish without a connection to Israel? Sure. I’ve been doing it and living it for years. I don’t need some rich guy endowing a “program” to help me along, especially since it’s his agenda that’s being financed, and not mine. If I were 20 years old today and was offered a Birthright trip, I’d pass, and ask for help with college instead.

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