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How not to strengthen Jewish identity

Posted By -NO AUTHOR- On 12/08/1998 @ 1:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled

Concern has long been strong among American Jewish leaders regarding the increasing alienation of many younger Jews from Judaism. In the increasingly secular culture of the contemporary elite, within which even the attenuated vestiges of religion (such as the so-called “Christmas season” now upon us) are largely Christianity-derived, more and more Jewish young people have for decades been not so much rejecting as simply abandoning Jewish practice. The resulting high intermarriage rates (currently above 50 percent), low levels of synagogue affiliation among young singles and families, and other ominous indicators have given rise to what I suspect to be well-founded fears of the ultimate ethnic and religious assimilation of non-Orthodox American Jewry.

But “Birthright Israel” — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new program to underwrite an all-expenses-paid 10-day trip to Israel for every Jew aged 15 to 26, in an effort to revitalize a conscious, Zionist Jewish identity in the Diaspora — is a misguided and doomed nonsolution. Under this foolish project’s auspices, Israel would provide $1 million in 1999 and $20 million in the year 2000; all Jews between the ages of 15 and 26 from any country in the world would be eligible for the free airfare, room, board, and educational seminars the program will provide, says
Charles Bronfman, co-chairman of the Seagram Company and one of the financial backers of the project.

Why is this program destined to fail? So far as the United States is concerned, Columbia professor Samuel G. Freedman suggests perhaps the most obvious objection to the program: money isn’t a major factor keeping most American Jews from visiting Israel in the first place. Those really interested in travel to Israel — not just statistically affluent Reform and Conservative Jews, but the more deeply motivated and (by and large) less well-off Orthodox as well — find the money themselves to do so. (And the motivated do exist: Steven Cohen, a sociologist at Hebrew University’s Melton Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora reports that American Jewry is already much more strongly bonded to Israel than Israeli Jews are to their cousins in the Diaspora. In fact, “American Jews value their relationship with Israel, a lot more than Israelis value their relationship with American Jews,” says Cohen; “Israeli Jews ought to care about Jewish life abroad, and the vast majority of Israeli Jews don’t.” If Prime Minister Netanyahu is really interested in strengthening the ties between the Diaspora and the Jews of Israel, he might do better to try working on the home front.)

But the major reason Birthright Israel will never achieve its goals is a matter of plain common sense. Throwing money at young Jews in order to bribe them into a greater sense of their Jewishness simply won’t work on the face of it.

Will the young and Jewish take Israel up on its generous offer of an all-expenses-paid vacation abroad? Very possibly. Will they appreciate the fact that their free trip comes with bonus multicultural-chic points for ethnic identification? Of course. Nothing could be more welcome to Jewish college students, who are naturally anxious to align themselves, in today’s scary undergraduate community climate, as an ethnic “minority” group rather than an “oppressor” group. But will a significant percentage of those taking Israel up on its generous offer actually change in the long term? I doubt it. Many will simply accept the offer as a free holiday; some may spend a couple of semesters after their trips hanging out at the Jewish student center and attending Shabbat services, riding the only shot they’ve got at ethnic cachet. But where money has been the major motivation for personal change, any such change that occurs is unlikely to go much further than skin deep. When Birthright Israel’s first beneficiaries are interviewed ten years after their trips, such temporary lifestyle effects will be found to have faded like the ripples from a stone thrown into a pool.

I would go further. I would argue that reducing the invitation to explore one’s heritage and identity (or any other worthy-deemed goal) to a matter of an indiscriminate financial handout, as Birthright Israel will, is virtually guaranteed to accomplish exactly the opposite of its intended goal. The monetary incentive will trivialize the project’s objective, breed and attract cynicism, and tacitly insult its participants’ motives (whilst drawing in as participants precisely those people whose motives really are mostly or entirely mercenary and “in bad faith” — after all, those of good faith would have attended anyway, even unbribed). Regarding the minority of participants whose lives are affected by the project at all, I predict not just a high recidivism rate but an active negative effect upon these people’s ultimate degree of Jewish identification. And I speak not just by abstract logic, but from analogous personal experience.

The summer between freshman and sophomore years of college, I took up a very similar offer from the Lubavitcher Hasidic Orthodox-sponsored Ivy League Torah Study Program . That program offers room, board, and a $1000 stipend to college and graduate students with “minimal or absolutely no background in Jewish studies and observance” and “a sincere interest in exploring authentic Jewish heritage” to come and stay in a bucolic complex in the Catskills and study the relevance of Jewish observance and identity. I figured it beat taking a minimum-wage summer job (or an unpaid intern-cum-corporate-slave position), so I applied and duly enrolled in the program.

What can I say? It was fun. It was even educational. (The current curriculum , as described on the ILTSP Web site, looks even more fun and even more educational — it now includes pithy classes like medical ethics and a much-expanded list of summer-camp-type extracurricular activities.) All things taken into account, I’d still recommend it, considered simply as a tempting summer option. But was I any less likely to “assimilate” when I left than when I arrived? Did I “feel any more Jewish” than before? Hardly. I, and many like me, simply took the money (and the knowledge and the good times) and ran. Nice as it all was, you see, we simply wouldn’t have been there without the stipend: once the checks were in our pockets, we were ready to move on to the next curriculum and the next set of interests, very much the same people we were when we’d arrived.

If the ILTSP offered its facilities and resources only to those who were willing to make some sacrifices to attend — i.e., if it charged its enrollees money instead of doling it out, even if it charged only room-and-board expenses — then those who received the program’s benefits would be self-selected to actually go ahead and take the kind of advantage of those benefits that the program wants them to receive. Those who enrolled at some cost to themselves (if only by foregoing the money they could have earned in a summer job at home) would be more likely to arrive open to the possibility of change and to come away changed in fact.

But throwing money at students to entice them to enroll in the ILTSP produces exactly the result that might be expected of any open-enrollment social spending program. The existence of the stipend ultimately reduced my ILTSP experience to an invitation I’d accepted to scam upon the program funders’ goodheartedness and generosity, a mean and shady financial transaction, an ethically suspect deal that left a bad taste in my mouth. That inchoate guilt I came away with made me evasive — less inclined, not more, to contemplate the question of my own Jewishness — and significantly increased my cynicism coefficient.

The story of my experience with ILTSP is nothing more than the story of the essential counterproductivity of welfare, writ small. Free money corrupts: plain and simple. To expect it to corrupt any less when it’s given to the educated for luxuries than when it’s given to the poor for necessities is so bizarre and counterintuitive as to seem to me nearly insane — if anything, this “luxury welfare” brand of indiscriminate handout is more likely, not less, to have adverse effects. That is why I am predicting extremely poor results from the Birthright Israel project. The State of Israel (and associated American philanthropists) should abstain from instituting this misguided luxury-welfare program open to every Jew on earth, saving that money for defending itself against the many more palpable threats to its existence.


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