Academics examine Vitamin B10 – Birthright’s secret

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-29-12

Last week, more than 100 academics gathered at Brandeis University to analyze Taglit-Birthright Israel.

Alexandra Wolkoff (left), Hannah Turner (center)

Photo: Ofer Shimoni

Last week, more than 100 academics gathered at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies to analyze an unlikely research subject – Taglit-Birthright Israel.

The formal research confirmed what simple observation of this informal process reveals: This “Mega-Experiment in Jewish Education,” as Professor Len Saxe who convened the conference calls Birthright, has succeeded with more than 300,000 young Jews, thanks to the magic of Israel, an Israel they see through their eyes, not through the distorting lens of conflict-obsessed reporters or angry activists.

But Birthright’s success also stems from its humanistic, person-centered educational philosophy. This approach emphasizes “no strings attached” – meaning no ideological or practical demands in return for what Charles Bronfman calls a gift from one generation to the next. It respects all participants, inviting them to launch their own unique Jewish journeys without the traditional guilt trips, while acknowledging the centrality of Israel and of Jewish peoplehood in building modern Jewish identity.

Birthright’s origins were not just countercultural but counterintuitive. This is a program conceived in failure which easily could have failed. It emerged from the panic generated in the 1990s when the National Jewish Population Survey confirmed that intermarriage was becoming mainstreamed in America. The American Jewish future looked grim.

Birthright was the programmatic equivalent of a cardiac defibrillator, trying to give the ailing Jewish community an emergency healing shock as things turned critical. But thanks to its affirmative, open-ended approach, Birthright has gone from being palliative to preventative. Vitamin B10 – 10 days of a collective Birthright experience trip in Israel – is becoming a Jewish rite of passage, an elegant way to start or restart a Jewish journey, not a desperate, defensive measure against assimilation.

Now it looks easy, but it wasn’t. In the 1990s, philosophers like Francis Fukuyama were declaring “the end of history,” as Miles Trentell, the evil advertising executive on the late 1980s, early 1990s TV hit, Thirty-something scoffed that, to modern Americans, history is last week’s People magazine cover.

In 1995, the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam published his article (which became a book), “Bowling Alone,” arguing that in a post-collective age, selfish Americans bowled, but not together in leagues as their parents did; this generation bowled alone.

In 1996, the historian David Hollinger’s Postethnic America concluded that Americans were abandoning their tribal connections.

Yet to ahistorical, hyperindividualistic, postethnic Americans – and moderns, because Jews in dozens of countries participate – Birthright offered a sense of the past through Israel’s layers of history, a sense of the group through the peer experience on the bus, and a sense of rootedness through the ethnic, tribal, national Jewish connection.

And participants loved it.

Similarly, Birthright, which the historian Jonathan Sarna notes reflected a new faith in “transformative” educational experiences rather than more normative, less ecstatic “formative” ones, revolutionized assumptions in the Jewish world.

Birthright proved that Judaism could be dynamic and welcoming. Not only has Birthright shown that bold ideas can be game-changers, but it introduced a new, more fluid, more inspiring, less formalistic, less alienating type of Judaism for young Jews to embrace, even without bar mitzvah goodies as bribes.

Birthright proved that Israel could be inspiring and even comforting, a far cry from the embattled, controversial country they see on TV, because not everything is political. And Birthright proved that Zionism, despite its many internal and external enemies, could be cool and relevant.

Birthright reintroduces Judaism to participants as what Rabbi Yitz Greenberg calls “an organizing filter,” a way of understanding the world and themselves. This intense “takeoff” experience “reconnects” young Jews with Jewish tradition, even while acting as what Jeffrey Solomon of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies called a “disruptive technology,” meaning an innovative, unconventional, cutting-edge program.

Birthright Israel’s core educational principles, drafted by one of the greats of modern Jewish education, Professor Barry Chazan, offer a quilted theory – meaning an integrated platform – combining an experiential approach, a culture of values, a culture of ideas, person-centered education, social interactionism and the concept of fun – in a respectful, constructive context which measures outcomes.

It has created a process which respects every participant’s intelligence, independence and integrity – only asking them to participate constructively, then draw their own conclusions.

The central challenge facing modern American Jews is not anti-Semitism, nor is it defending Israel. It is answering such basic questions as “who am I,” “what are my values,” “how do I build a meaningful life” and “where does Judaism fit in”? As chairman of Birthright Israel’s International Education Committee, I confess that the bigger Birthright gets the harder we have to work to help participants answer those questions effectively by staying small, intimate and person-centered.

We never want to become the “educational McDonald’s” of the Jewish people, mass producing one-size-fits-all fast food-type experiences. Instead, we seek to cultivate a modern, open-air, experiential Beit Midrash (House of Study), wherein each individual may follow the same itinerary, but, in a true I-thou educational interaction, grows in a particular way that works for him or her.

Jeffrey Solomon asked: will Taglit be like Apple or HP – continuing to innovate or so addicted to past success we stagnate.

From the start, Birthright has invested in research, guaranteeing constant and accurate feedback, while yielding results – ably analyzed by Len Saxe and his Brandeis team – proving that the experience encourages Jews to marry each other, raises Israel awareness, deepens Jewish connectedness, and is lots of fun.

Conferences like this one, assembling educators, rabbis, historians, demographers, anthropologists, sociologists, even an economist, will keep Birthright sharp, keep it innovating, even as its essential fuel remains the delightfully combustible combination of Jewish tradition, an open-ended approach, passionate educators, and a generation seeking meaning in life and a more dynamic Judaism than the one their parents introduced to them.

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, he is the chairman of the Taglit-Birthright Israel International Education Committee.

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We love you, Charles Bronfman (In Honor of his 80th Birthday)

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 6-16-11

At an intimate birthday dinner in Jerusalem at the end of May, the president of Israel, Shimon Peres, had a formidable task.
The golden-tongued Peres had to honour a personal friend of 60 years, a man who is a cherished friend to Israel, the Jewish People, and citizens of Canada and the United States. He had to find a fresh and meaningful way to capture the emotions in the room as we toasted a visionary philanthropist who has been honoured again and again with honorary doctorates, the Order of Canada and honorary citizenship status from Jerusalem.

Smart and sophisticated enough to know that, sometimes, it is best to trust simplicity and sincerity, Peres, brimming with emotion, welcomed Charles Bronfman to the exclusive club of vital, vibrant, inspiring octogenarians, and said: “We love you, Charles.” Peres’ soft-spoken delivery and Polish-accented “r,” elongating the name nobly, made the name “Charrrrles” sound like the loftiest of titles.

And it’s so true.

We love you, Charles, as Montrealers, because of the devotion you showed the city during its darkest hour. By keeping the Montreal Expos alive when you did, you were investing in the city where your father launched your legendary family’s many heroic accomplishments. And by supporting McGill and Concordia universities so generously, you helped Anglo life continue to thrive, not just survive.

We love you, Charles, as Canadians, because your Canadian foundation’s CRB Heritage Minutes not only educate Canadians about the past but offer a model of public education, proving that not everything popular and compelling need be superficial or stupid.

We love you, Charles, as Americans, because, spurred by your beloved late wife, Andrea, you helped us heal after the mass murders of Sept. 11. Andy’s initiative, “The Gift of New York,” giving free museum, culture, and sports tickets to 9/11 families, not only embraced the families brutalized by Islamist terrorism, it helped revive the New York cultural scene after the mass trauma, reminding Americans to define New York by the institutions that make it live, not the evildoers who marked so many for death.

We love you, Charles, as Israelis, because your Keren Karev is like a magic wand waved up and down the country, making once-ugly sites beautiful and turning seemingly intractable social and educational problems into opportunities to help people by pioneering creative, cutting-edge solutions.

We love you, Charles, as Jews, because your Taglit-Birthright Israel program has now launched more than 250,000 Jewish journeys at a critical time in the life of Israel and the Jewish People.

Like a brilliant matchmaker, you and your fellow philanthropists brought together Jews from communities scattered throughout the world – craving inspiration – with Israel, a country oozing with inspiration, but increasingly misunderstood by Jews and non-Jews who judge it harshly from afar rather than experiencing and embracing it up close.

And in your typical style, you’ve followed through on the unexpected consequences of this bold experiment, pioneering through your Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies in New York programs for the oft-overlooked and neglected Jewish 20-somethings, who deserve creative, open-minded and dynamic programs tailored to their unique characters.

Of course, this is only a sampling of Bronfman’s art of giving, the many amazing projects he has shared with the world. That such a miracle man is such a mensch, mastering the art of living, too, is even more impressive. I have seen how gentle, modest, and accessible he is with Birthright participants, flustered by meeting the great man, yet immediately put at ease by his charm.  And I vividly remember the first time, he, and the lovely but formidable Andy, along with their dog, Yoffi, first hosted an obscure young academic in the majestic Montreal headquarters of Seagram’s a decade ago. The warmth, the respect and the openness conveyed at our first meeting also set me at ease, launching me on one of my great life adventures: helping with Birthright’s educational programming.

And so for your kindnesses and your accomplishments, your greatness and your heimishness, I echo the president of Israel’s plain but profound words:  we love you, Charles – and happy 80th birthday.

Birthright Israel as an Rx to ‘Israel Exhaustion’

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-25-09

 

Although life in Israel is, overall, delightfully safe and calm these days, these are sobering times for the pro-Israel community abroad. Israel-bashing is all the rage in the Arab world, in European salons and at the UN. It is also becoming an increasingly popular pastime on campuses and even among some “progressive” American Jews, who confess to “Israel exhaustion.”

Smart analysts like Rabbi Daniel Gordis, author of Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End, point to structural and ideological shifts that explain why so many more young Jews throw up their hands in exhaustion rather than raising their voices in unison not just to defend Israel, but to celebrate Israel.

“The issue isn’t Israel, or utopia,” Gordis recently wrote in The Jerusalem Post. “It’s America, and the ‘I’ at the core of American sensibilities.” Challenging the community for “basically doing nothing” Gordis concluded: “Try to list the serious Jewish educational enterprises addressing this challenge, asking how American Jewish education can counter America’s unfettered individualism, or what Israel could do to help. Can you name even one? Neither can I.”

Although I have never played poker with my friend and role model Rabbi Gordis, I will see him, and raise him, on his analysis. Not only do too many North American Jewish enterprises fail to counter American individualism, careerism and materialism – too much North American Jewish life fosters individualism, careerism and materialism. We need think-tanks analyzing this problem, educational, communal and religious institutions countering the problem, and the entire community embarking on a twelve-step program to end our collective addiction to the modern paganism of selfishness, individuation, acquisitiveness, hyper-ambition and greed.

Yet we must do this subtly, moderately, because North American individualism, careerism and materialism are also keys to North American Jewish liberty, creativity and vitality. To get the right balance, to find the right mix, we must blend in Jewish values, spirituality, textual learning, an appreciation of history, Zionist passion, a love of Israel, the power of community and the sheer fun of living Jewish, loving Jewish, doing Jewish.

Fortunately, the day school movement in North America has flagship schools, including Akiva School in Montreal and Gann Academy in Boston, that are succeeding with this North American Jewish recipe.  Moreover, modern Jewry and the pro-Israel community have an ace in the hole: Taglit-Birthright Israel, the single most successful Jewish communal innovation of the last decade (probably longer, but it is only ten years old). Birthright Israel exhilaration counters the Israel exhaustion of the blame-Israel-firsters, the my, my, my, now, now, now individuation of the all-American me-firsters, and the “whatever” alienation of the too-cool-to-be-Jewish, Jewish hipsters.

Birthright Israel’s free ten-day trips to Israel invite Jewish students to press the reset button on their Jewish experiences, their Israel connection, their Zionist identities, their personal worldviews and individual paths. Birthright participants engage Israel through sites and delights, not through politics and problems. They learn to appreciate the power of community, Jewish and otherwise, because – in the spirit of the Minyan, Jewish communal prayer – they get a free ticket to join 40 others on this journey, not simply to backpack across Israel alone. And they are welcomed not hectored to continue, to pursue their own Jewish journeys. The “no strings attached” promise of birthright – meaning no demands for payback, financial or ideological – reflects  the program’s educational openness, integrity and effectiveness – contrary to caricatures from the left for being too heavyhanded and from the right for being too namby-pamby.

The Birthright trinity of land, history and people leavened with friendship, a family feeling, 24/7 intensity, and fun exposes Jewish students, on the cusp of adulthood, to an Israel they never read about in the newspapers and, I regret to say, often a quality of Jewish life they never experienced back home. The timing is perfect. Students 18 to 26 are making the life-decisions about career, quality of life, and love that will shape who they are for the coming decades. Moreover, the tone is just right. Clearly, birthright has a pro-Israel, pro-Jewish, pro-Zionist perspective. But smart educators know that today’s youth cannot be bullied or guilt-tripped into believing or belonging. Despite all the troubles, slanders and terrorism of the decade, 220,000 Jewish students have participated, with the overwhelming majority thrilled, and many returning to their communities ready to be the passionate Jews – and Jewish leaders – of tomorrow.

And yet, in a reflection of stunning, unconscionable, communal myopia, not every student who applies can go on Birthright. The Jerusalem Post reports that this winter alone, “more than 13,000 young, mostly unaffiliated Jews from around the world were turned away” due to lack of funding, and that “80% of wait-listed birthright applicants never reapply.” Here a program with a proven track-record responds to the great communal challenge of our time by inspiring young Jews, yet somehow not enough individual Jews and communal institutions have decided to fund it yet.

My parents report that among their “golden age” peers, grandparents are always saying how “wonderful” Birthright is. I wonder, do any of them decide therefore to take some responsibility and send another deserving youngster – or 40 on a bus – or 100 from a community – as thanks? People love to ask Birthright’s founders Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt “how can I ever repay you?” Bronfman and Steinhardt probably are too polite to answer: “by donating generously to send others.”

Birthright began as an act of guerilla philanthropy – as Messrs. Bronfman and Steinhardt rushed ahead, before all the proper committees met, before all the Jewish communal protocols were followed – and they succeeded. This act of guerilla philanthropy should now be rewarded – when the crunch is on – with a massive display of grassroots giving. People should give what they can, raise more from others, and demand that their Federations increase support. And no one who reads this essay can ever say, “no one ever asked me to help” – I just did.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. He just became the voluntary Chairman of the Taglit-Birthright International Education Committee.