Global, Identity, Israel, Politics

Tourists in Israel, Tourists in Judaism

Tourists, Travels, and Citizens: Jewish Engagement of Young AdultsThe Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandies has released a study of the Jewish communal involvement of Taglit-Birthright Israel alumni. Focusing on the four North American cities with the largest Jewish populations (Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Toronto), the study (called Tourists, Travelers, and Citizens: Jewish Engagement of Young Adults in Four Centers of North American Jewish Life) finds that by and large, the young adults remain “tourists” in their North American Jewish communities.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency had an article earlier today summarizing the findings, but it seems to have been taken down. [Edit: later this afternoon, it’s back up.] Luckily, I copied down the part I found most interesting:

The alumni surveyed in all four cities said they would like to be more involved than they were in Jewish life. Most preferred small gatherings to large, anonymous “meat market” Jewish events.
“They’re happy to eat free food and drink free beer at those big events, but they don’t feel it meets their needs to find Jewish community,” [study co-author Fern] Chertok reports.
Respondents also said they were interested in learning more about Judaism and Jewish culture and history, including Hebrew, but were wary of outreach groups with a perceived “religious” agenda. They also wanted a network of friends to share those experiences as a way of re-creating the camaraderie they felt on their Israel trips.

Without spending too much time wondering where the article has gone, I’d love to think through this a bit more. Do these results sound like your experiences with the Jewish community? Do you know of people or organizations that are doing it right? (The article also talked about Birthright’s own alumni engagement program, Taglit-Birthright Israel NEXT, although it sounds like NEXT has grown a bit since the study was completed.) And if Birthright is (as all evidence seems to imply) awakening great feelings of Jewish identity in a new generation of Jews, why is it so hard for the Jewish community to make room for them?

21 thoughts on “Tourists in Israel, Tourists in Judaism

  1. I summarize the report in one way: “10-day free trips not enough to overcome Jewish community’s staid offerings.” All these kids go on Birthright, get jazzed up, and then come home to see the same boring crap.
    It also seems that Birthright NEXT is being too much of a gatekeeper. In NYC, for example, the JCC, 92nd and 14th Street Ys are known by 60% BR alumni and only 20% go. But they ONLY know those three options. Andy Bachman just said this on his own blog:

    How long did it take birthright, after it’s founding, to create an official post-trip programming arm? I lost count after five years but I think the official answer is 7-8 years–on the national level for sure.
    And in that time period–when I worked at Hillel at NYU, ran Brooklyn Jews, and as a congregational rabbi in what is known as an “attractive” neighborhood, I always got one answer and one answer alone when asking for lists of birthright alumni in our “attractive” area: NO.
    Plain and simple: NO.

    And perhaps more to the point:

    From the trenches: Jews are made one at a time. Release the lists to those who know what they’re doing and aren’t afraid to say everything isn’t for free.

    The gatekeepers — BR and BR NEXT — are squelching any connections alumni would make with the more interesting of Jewish life options: Hazon, Union of Progressive Zionists, Teva or Adamah, JFREJ, JCUA, New Voices, or whatever. The JCC, 14th/92nd Street Ys offer lovely options…but they’re not interesting enough. They don’t represent a vibrant community of people like them — not that little old ladies and moms with kids aren’t nice people — but nothing like Jewish cyclists or foodies or housing rights activists.
    Thanks for getting to this quickly, dlevy.

  2. Maybe this is a case of the grass is always greener, but I think the JCC and the Ys offer plenty of interesting programming, but it’s not enough. We need more options, not fewer. (But that doesn’t mean we need to disparage some to boost up others.)

  3. I think the key is sharing information quickly, effectively, with a wide range of different Jewish organisations and groups. I understand privacy issues are at play, but if every Birthright participant had to fill out a form the day after they returned from Israel that was short, concise, and drew on their enthusiasm, the information could be passed on with consent. Something like, “yes! put me in touch with Jewish organisations that focus on: culture, arts, environment, politics, activism, social justice, education, religion, … [check all that apply]”. Then Taglit could pass those names/emails on to organisations of all stripes that fit those headings. It wouldn’t take much to create an online database and survey for this to streamline the process.

  4. Hell, if BR would even just accept a wide array of events into their emails or on their web site — holy moley, every Jewish org would jump to list their events their. They could search by type and interest there if they wanted.

  5. For the most part BRI alumni find a Jewish community focused only on people who have lots of $$$ to support it. I’ve been to JCCs and synagogues and find that most of the people there are in their 50s–my Mom’s age, and 70s, my grandparents’ age. I don’t need a fancy building, nor do I need some fancy rabbi making 6 figures, and I certainly don’t want to pay for it. I’d like to attend events created by people my age who plan the events and attend the events because they want to–not because they are some professional with a degree who is doing it to make a living. I have no intention of EVER joining a synagogue, though I would be happy to attend a minyan. And if I should marry and have children I will NEVER send them to Hebrew school, such a waste of time. Hopefully we can create our own communities and let Jewish community of big fancy synagogues–and even fancier rabbis–fade away.

  6. Joe – guess what? Some of us are professionals with degrees who are also people your age who are doing it because we want to do it. The world isn’t quite that black and white.

  7. All I have to say about this report is, “no shit.” I’ve been saying for years that Birthright tries to provide assimilation inoculations by sending folks to a foreign country, and providing them with zero tools to build their own Judaism (hell, based on the providers, I dont even think folks know they CAN build their own Judaism).

  8. Hey Joe, how do you expect your kids to learn about Hebrew and Judaism without Hebrew school? I’m sorry your experience with Rabbis has been so bad, but I can assure you that most Rabbis’ lives aren’t “fancy,” but are filled with obligations to other people.

  9. Hey Joe, how do you expect your kids to learn about Hebrew and Judaism without Hebrew school?
    The real question is how any of us learned about Hebrew and Judaism with Hebrew school.

  10. The Kung Fu Jew may not be aware of this, but Birthright Israel NEXT was a co-sponsor of the last Hazon Food conference – we had a special session for BI alumni there, and about 30,000 people heard about it through our newsletter. We’ve also worked on retreats with Adamah and the Jewish Farm School and have worked with educators that are connected to Teva. UPZ leads an actual Taglit-Birthright Israel trip to Israel (in cooperation with the New Israel Fund) and they do follow-up with their participants. So this claim that we are “squleching” is out of touch with reality. We are very much aware of what is going on in the Jewish world on multiple levels and as we improve our communications systems, we’ll have an even better way to connect folks to things that are relevant to them.

  11. As post college Jews around whom the shtetle walls have fallen, Judaism now has competition from our other ‘hat’s’ of identity. Judaism successfully competes when the offerings seem genuine.
    We are far more interested in relationships over membership. We want to engage, but find the older generation stupefied by our meaning of engagement. We would rather volunteer with small groups of friends, have Shabbat dinners in people’s homes, and enjoy our Jewish lives outside of traditional Jewish institutions.
    Moishe House is one of the few organizations enabling these kinds of positive Jewish experiences. for more info.
    The Am is strong, but is expressing itself in different ways.

  12. By the way, it’s not like people haven’t been anecdotally saying all this for years. Birthright from the beginning was looked upon not very happily by some of the larger Federations who were more or less strongarmed into supporting it at the expense of other programs (LA is a great example of this).
    It’s not that the synagogues are stifling the growth of younger and more vibrant groups – some are, and some aren’t- lots of interesting stuff is going on all over the place, but these moneyed folks with their desire to control the interactions, that’s the problem. There’s a lot of “my way or the highway” going on, and that is actually getting int he way of many synagogues offering more interesting engaging options too.

  13. I find the premise of Kung Fu Jew’s comments, re-enforced by Andy Bachman’s blog post, problematic. The idea that Birthright leaders are pro-actively “squelching any connections alumni would make with the more interesting of Jewish life options” seems rather off the mark. At the risk of offering a simplistic pop-culture reference, is it possible that most young Jews just aren’t that into you (the “you” being the organized Jewish community, even in it’s indie/hipster manifestations)?
    Others have said much the same thing above, but to be clear, my point is that this lack of interest need not stem from or require a conspiracy of power by Birthright, or Federations, or synagogues, or overpaid rabbis, or the Trilateral Commission. It simply IS (and WHY that’s the case is another question entirely). It’s this reality to which most every organization in the Jewish world is trying to respond, some with more success than others.
    The legitimate argument is whether Birthright is a valuable use of precious communal resources. Does it really create a lasting impact for its participants? Is this focus on Israel as the “Jew-juice” that will re-charge the next generation really on the mark? Maybe yes, maybe no. But those are the questions we should be talking about, not some petty “he said, she said” arguments about controlling mailing lists. Trust me, the fantasy that “if we e-mail them, they will come” is not going to get any of us very far, so arguing over who got what e-mail listing which event when is entirely missing the point.
    This new report is a valuable tool that helps us focus on the big picture, so let’s all go read it and then discuss.

  14. I don’t think Federations have any problem funneling money to Israel. I know in Boston, CJP (our Federation) gives close to 30% of its budget to overseas programming. What Federations might have problems with is being told to fund one particular program (or method of engaging with Israel) to the exclusion of all others.

  15. Rabbi Brenner! In case y’all didn’t know, the Exec Director of Birthright NEXT has joined our conversation — we’re honored.
    To your point, Rabbi Brenner: my comments were about New York City’s specific results, but I’m interested in your interpretation because you know more intimately how partnerships have been handled. I don’t think readers here are swayed with isolated instances where you did collaborate — I suggested doing a ton more. Is there a reason BR and NEXT have been limited about whose events and projects get into promotions to alumni?
    I am led to agree with Rabbi Bachman that the Birthright project is having this trouble connecting alumni with the Jewish community because it’s not actively marketing the myriad expressions of Judaism to alumni. I think some of the ideas we mentioned above would be great starts: an events calendar for other orgs to promote their events to alumni, etc.
    But I’m not assuming you don’t already think about all of this. So what is your staff thinking about now that this report has emerged?

  16. To Gregg: My point about mailing lists wasn’t just to pick a fight. It to suggest that because American Jewish life is disappointing to young Jews and they’re leaving that just a 10-day trip to Israel won’t fix that. But there ARE very innovative and interesting projects, events and causes in certain sectors, especially in NYC. But those aren’t what’s being promoted, it seems. NEXT and BR can open up or can promote others better. Those seem the options to me, but clearly more is called for.

  17. To KFJ: I get your point, but I still think focusing on what events/orgs Birthright does or does not promote is a rather limited question of tactics. You yourself stated the bigger picture: “because American Jewish life is disappointing to young Jews … a 10-day trip to Israel won’t fix that.” It seems that this new report has something substantive to say about that question which brings us back to the value of devoting so much communal energy on Birthright and using Israel as the spark plug for Jewish engagement, in general.
    Let’s not fall into the trap of seeing the Jewish communal world as a binary landscape of indie/hipster/innovative orgs and programs vs. the same-old-same-old, with the assumption that if only younger Jews new about the innovative orgs then the problem of Jewish continuity in America would be solved. I think the experience of Birthright and the findings of this new report point to something much deeper and more complex.
    But yes, as a question of tactics, sure, Birthright ought to consider how they can better highlight those sectors of the community that seem to resonate most with the target demographic (although something tells me that Rabbi Brenner and others already are doing just that).

  18. Typo: “with the assumption that if only younger Jews KNEW about the innovative orgs” – I wish this site let you edit your comments after posting!

  19. Gregg, just to be clear, I do count some synagogues and “old” orgs among the innovators who are doing things right, and Bachman’s Cong. Beth Elohim is one of those.

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