Academics examine Vitamin B10 – Birthright’s secret


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.

The Case for Change: A Challenge to the Jewish Agency

By Gil Troy, eJewish Philanthropy, 3-7-10

Change is easy to endorse and hard to implement – if it’s easy, it means it’s not being done right. If it’s not systematic, it’s sloppy; if it’s cosmetic, it’s fleeting. Today, new directions must be forged, tough choices must be made, and new ways of doing business must be developed.

Let’s be frank, most North American Jews that I know do not know what the Jewish Agency is or does. And a surprising number of Israelis I know say – with anger in their voices – that the Jewish Agency should become extinct like the dinosaur it is.

Moreover, while most Jewish Agency employees I meet are extraordinary – idealistic, passionate – they work for a bureaucracy with a terrible reputation, with what seems to be a toxic corporate culture. When many people pass Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem, rather than seeing what I see: a building rooted in Jewish history, pulsating with the energy of the Zionist mission and like Israel itself, a key to our salvation as Jews and human beings – they imagine hearing the ticktock, ticktock of bureaucrats marking time and the clink, clink, whirl, whirl of good money flushing down the drain.

We could kid ourselves and say, “well, it’s a PR problem, all this could be solved by some re-branding” but historic conditions have changed – demanding an adjustment in the Jewish Agency’s mission as well.

The modern Zionist Movement tried to solve “The Jewish Problem” of the 19th century – anti-Semitism. The Jewish Problem for Most (not all) today – is the opposite: We are being Loved to Death. Most Jews- thankfully – enjoy unprecedented freedom – and prosperity. But too many of them understand that freedom as “negative freedom” freedom from – freedom from ties, from tradition, from community, from responsibilities.

We can find salvation in more Jewish education because Jewish education is not just about learning the facts but mastering life, Jewish education is not just about thinking but doing, Jewish education is not just about understanding the world but fixing it – Tikun Olam – Jewish education is not just about skill-building but identity-building. In short Jewish education is values education – and that is the added value we need – and must provide. I agree with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “This is not an exercise in education; it’s an exercise in survival.”

And that is where the Jewish Agency has started to come in – and must come in more – more effectively, systematically, and publicly. Natan Sharansky’s vision of the Jewish Agency as the spearhead for a global Jewish push revitalizing Jewish identity is what’s needed. If in the 20th Century, the Jewish Agency’s great accomplishment was saving Jewish lives, the 21st century must be about saving Jewish souls.

Like “change” “identity” can be an empty slogan, amorphous, lacking meat on the bones. Our vision of Jewish identity and our mission must be coherent so we know how to get traction on this important issue.

The Jewish Agency is uniquely positioned to educate for a modern Jewish identity focusing on peoplehood with Israel at its center – with the Jewish Agency carving out peoplehood platforms for identity-building throughout the Jewish world. This is a logical evolution – the elements are all there – but the branding and focus are lacking.

There is no Jewish Agency, no rationale for a Jewish Agency, without peoplehood. The Jewish Agency must be the global hothouse for nurturing those values, proud of its worldwide reach and its own roots in Eretz Yisrael the land of the Jewish people, and its commitment to the greatest collective Jewish undertaking of the last century, the State of Israel. We have to explain the idea of Peoplehood as the Jewish superglue, the sense of shared destiny uniting us, in good times and bad. We have to build on our family feeling, that insidery “MOT” – “member of the tribe” feeling that even many seemingly assimilated, alienated hipster Jews in New York have. The beauty of peoplehood – and of Zionism, the power of Israel and of our Jewish values, is that, when done right, we make our tribalism transcendent. We move from solidarity to idealism, from we are one to “ani v’atah neshanaheh et ha olam” – you and I will change the world.

Just as drug abuse counselors call marijuana the Gateway drug, opening the way for all kinds of others we, levhadeel, should look at Peoplehood as the gateway Jewish value, opening the way to many other dimensions of identity. We will only restore it as a gateway value through education.

Decades ago, when Rabbi Yitz Greenberg requested increased Federation allocations to Jewish education in New York, the leaders hesitated. “We don’t have enough money to do what you request. What should we do? Shall we close down Jewish community centers, and the Jewish hospitals, nursing homes, and homes for the aged that we subsidize?” “Yes, close them down!” Greenberg insisted. “But do you know what I’ll teach the children who will receive the Jewish education that you will sponsor? I’ll teach them to open up community centers, hospitals, nursing homes and homes for the aged!”

Change requires bold strategic vision, some signature programs as key tactics, and, most important, serious transformation in the trenches. Ronald Reagan was better at articulating a vision of change and focusing on a few signature programs, Margaret Thatcher implemented more fundamental changes from the top down – for better or worse.

In the Jewish world, we need “big bold ideas,” in the words of Jerry Silverman of UJ (oops, I mean JFNA – you see organizations do change). We’ve seen JNF go green; the American Jewish Committee go from being a sha-shtill organization of American Jewish shtadlanim to a muscular defender of the Jewish people; Boston Federation lead in the push toward identity and education for 20 years; and the Montreal Federation’s Gen J initiative focus on 5 gateways leading to better Jewish living: formal Jewish education; camps and youth programming; family and adult programming; Israel experiences; and arts and culture. The idea is to focus less on the hardware and more on updating communal software, trying to reach Jews at all stages of the life-cycle, but especially Jewish youth.

My uncle, who was in the advertising business for 50 years says the one constant in his career was change. My father-in-law, who’s in real estate, keeps a running list of all the rock-solid tenants like Canada’s legendary Eaton’s department store or Eastern Airlines that would never go out of business, but did. I have a Lubavitch friend who is a savvy internet marketer. He changed from his PC to an Apple – because, he said, change is good, it shakes you up. To effect change, the leaders of the Jewish Agency, this College of Cardinals of the Jewish people, will need the discipline of the Congress during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the fluidity of the British parliament under Thatcher, the courage of Ben Gurion and this very agency on the eve of independence in 1948 and the wisdom of our ancient Sanhedrin.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” the views expressed here are his own.

Education cuts are hasty and shortsighted

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 6-10-09

In July, 2007, amid much fanfare, the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Board of Jewish Education became the Centre for Enhancement of Jewish Education, widely called the Mercaz – Hebrew for “centre.”“The name says what the priorities are,” the Mercaz chair Lou Greenbaum exulted. This spring, less than two years later and amid much less fanfare, the Mercaz was abruptly downsized and thus marginalized, shedding at least 10 full-time jobs.

What happened in Toronto is happening throughout the Jewish world. The last two decades’ gains in Jewish education and identity-building are disappearing as quickly as people’s net worths have plummeted. The legendary Boston Board of Jewish Education recently lost 80 per cent of its funding and will likely close. Birthright Israel, perhaps the most successful Jewish program of the 21st century, has turned away thousands of applicants this year because of limited funds.

These cutbacks are dangerous. Capitalism is cyclical – economic busts are usually followed by economic booms – but education and identity-building are more linear. Opportunities missed are rarely recovered. Children uneducated frequently remain ignorant. Young people turned off are rarely turned back on. Jewish leaders in Toronto and elsewhere can’t afford to be shortsighted. We must continue investing in education and outreach programs that foster Jewish pride and knowledge.

During the last two decades, Jewish education and identity-building boomed. Philanthropic visionaries such as Charles Bronfman, Michael Steinhardt and Lynn Schusterman made funding Israel trips, initiating teen programs, and even building Jewish day schools sexy.

They understood – as did many other generous donors and passionate professionals – that anti-Semitism doesn’t pose the greatest threat to this generation of thoroughly North Americanized Jews that it did to the immigrant generation. In fact, Jews today risked being loved to death by intermarriage, especially after having been bored to tears by so many initial encounters in synagogues, Jewish schools, and youth groups. The writer Leon Wieseltier adds that this generation’s great crime is not intermarriage but ignorance – most are extremely educated in secular subjects and appallingly uninformed Jewishly.

These insights – backed by sobering demographic studies – galvanized the community. Birthright Israel, which has brought more than 120,000 18-to-26-year-olds on free 10-day trips to Israel, has been the flagship program, generating the most buzz. But Birthright’s success reflected a broader reorientation toward education and identity building, accompanied by massive investments in teachers, teacher training, curricula, programs, infrastructure and central educational agencies such as the Mercaz.

I recall that in Montreal, as we planned our own massive, ambitious “Gen J” program to invest in our kids’ future, Toronto’s 2007 launch of the Mercaz inspired us – and made us feel a tad inadequate. We wondered whether our community could mobilize similar support for Jewish education. At the risk of feeding the Toronto-Montreal rivalry – although all of us should compete regarding who cares most about Jewish education and identity – so far Montreal has kept Jewish education front and centre, despite the economic downturn.

In fairness, Toronto continues to lead North America in providing tuition assistance, fostering quality Jewish day schools, and identity building. Still, shrinking the Mercaz is a big blow. Boards of Jewish education such as the Mercaz serve essential roles in professionalizing teachers, coaching administrators, providing quality control, nurturing reforms and upholding city-wide standards.

“I have always felt that the Mercaz did very important work and made significant contributions to Jewish education in Toronto,” Prof. Martin Lockshin of York University told me via e-mail. “They were, for example, indispensable for us at York in making our Jewish teacher education program work. They also provided indispensible services to many day schools and many teachers, particularly new teachers. I am very worried about how this gap will be filled. From conversations that I have had, I sense that my concerns are shared by many respected educators here in Toronto.”

The financial crisis is forcing Jewish communities worldwide to clarify their priorities, abandon unnecessary projects and focus on initiatives that work. Such retrenchment, while always painful and involuntary, can be constructive, resulting in more focused and effective communities. But hasty and thoughtless cutbacks can be particularly destructive, dooming this generation to ignorance and apathy.