Published September 02, 2009, issue of September 11, 2009.
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Taglit-Birthright Israel is widely regarded as the most successful attempt yet to strengthen the religious identity and connection to Israel of the demographic that is hardest to reach: Jews in their 20s. In less than 10 years, 200,000 Jews aged 18 to 26 have availed themselves of the free, 10-day trip to Israel, and many return home with a newfound passion for all things Jewish, along with the personal relationships to sustain those passions well into adulthood.

But, unfortunately, too many also return home and remain aloof from the Jewish community. They love the Birth-right. They haven’t mastered the Birth-*responsibility.

A study earlier this year found that 44% of post-college Birthright alumni didn’t attend a single Jewish program since their return. Another 39% went to only one or two. Only 4% took part in more than four programs. As the study noted, once the excitement and the jet lag wears off, these alums look more like tourists in the Jewish community than the citizens they ought to be.

With no strings attached to these trips, many alumni simply fly away.

Birthright NEXT was established to reel in those untethered Jews, with innovative programs in 14 North American cities that are designed to bear little resemblance to mom’s Hadassah meetings or the men’s club softball games. There are Hebrew classes, of course, but also open-mic nights, rap concerts, service projects, cooking demonstrations and subsidized Shabbat dinners.

The tone is decidedly young, hip, irreverent. On the Web site’s blog recently was a discussion about eating pork. It’s all in keeping with Birthright’s stated pluralistic, inclusive mission.

Which is why Birthright NEXT’s decision to grant New York’s Jewish Enrichment Center a virtual monopoly on outreach to local Birthright alumni is such a worrying anomaly. About 28% of all Birthright participants come from the New York area, yet their only follow-up option is at this well-endowed center run by rabbis who were trained at an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva. As our Gal Beckerman has reported, though plenty of New York alums say that the JEC is a welcoming, non-judgmental place, others have described being lured into an indoctrination process that borders on the deceptive.

This is a missed opportunity. Since the vast majority of Birthright participants are not Orthodox, any follow-up should offer alternatives entry points into a diverse Jewish world.

Birthright NEXT’s challenges run deeper than the shortcomings in any one program. Like the unfortunate speaker who is scheduled just after Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama, the Birthright trip itself is a tough act to follow. How do you top a free, 10-day vacation? Jews have become awfully good at organizing enlightening, emotional trips to Israel; Birthright just built on that experience.

The community is far less adept at effectively reaching out to single, unaffiliated Jews in their 20s, who marry and procreate later than their parents, and enter adulthood at a time of limitless opportunities as Americans, including the opportunity to ignore their faith and live outside the tribe. Worrying though the Jewish Enrichment Center is, it fills a void left by the inability or unwillingness of more progressive denominations to engage in the kind of passionate outreach characteristic of the ultra-Orthodox. This dynamic is played out on college campuses, where students flock to the warmth and welcome (and, let’s be honest, the liquor) offered in a Chabad house on a Friday night rather than the more institutional atmosphere of the local Hillel or synagogue.

We can’t ask a single program, even one supported by mega-philanthropists, to compensate for the absence of a broader communal commitment to engage 20-something Jews. But we are. Even worse, we are expecting programs such as Birthright NEXT to make up for the vast deficiencies in how Jewish children are raised.

Case in point: NEXT Shabbat. On the surface, it’s a brilliant repackaging of a mainstay of Jewish life. “Host a meal on a Friday night or Saturday and Birthright NEXT picks up the tab!” No requirement that the food be kosher, that prayers be uttered, that challah be blessed — just a do-it-yourself opportunity “to greet Shabbat with your own flair.”

And with some extra monetary compensation: $25 a person, to be exact, for up to 16 people. That’s $400 for a meal in a college dorm or starter apartment.

The organizers of NEXT Shabbat knew their audience when they concluded that the incentive was necessary, and the enthusiastic testimonies accompanying photos on the Web site speak to the gratitude many participants felt to buy food they could not ordinarily afford. Thousands have taken part.

But pause for a moment and reflect on the values expressed here. A Shabbat meal is one of the easiest, most affordable and portable elements of Jewish life. It requires no knowledge of Hebrew, rituals or dietary laws. It can be shared with non-Jews. It’s an entry-level mitzvah.

That a program needs to incentivize — dare we say bribe? — young people to perform this basic and beautiful Jewish activity is a huge indictment of how they were raised. Never mind what else $400 can buy: eight months worth of food, medicine, winter relief and home care for an elderly Jew in the former Soviet Union serviced by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, by way of one example.

Birthright NEXT clearly needs to more effectively reach all its many target audiences. But a single organization cannot possibly compensate for the failings of families and communities to raise young Jews willing to claim their rights and accept their responsibilities. Some say that Birthright has become the new bar or bat mitzvah. It’s a transitional moment, replete with an amazing gift, the privilege of experiencing Israel for free. But transition to what?

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