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As sociologist Eric Klinenberg has shown, singletons are known to play essential yet unappreciated roles in animating public spaces and communities. More needs to be done to promote an understanding of Jewish belonging as tied to all the stages of one’s life. By focusing on marriage and the family, Birthright claims victory over community erosion yet dismisses the opportunity to engage a growing demographic capable of dedicating the time and resources needed to implement the creative innovations and actions that can redefine American Judaism for a new generation.
My research and personal experiences suggest Birthright participants are unaware of the concerns regarding American Jewish continuity — the very concerns that prompted philanthropists to create the program in the first place. Since the “crisis of continuity” is never explicitly addressed on these tours, participants don’t see a pressing need to engage as individual actors once they return home. By taking Jews from their American context and placing them in Israel, participants don’t orient their Jewish concerns toward their own communities, but instead direct them toward Israel. This reinforces a passive form of American Judaism that requires no active engagement beyond a symbolic affinity to a distant land, and a flexible agreement regarding future familial decisions. This is a missed opportunity, because the rich history of American Judaism can provide models for local community engagement, exciting returning singletons and reorienting American Jews back toward their local communities.
To Birthright’s credit, it has invested in alumni outreach programs. Birthright Next, for example, encourages returning young adults to join existing Jewish communities through regional activities that focus on philanthropy, religious social events and intellectual conversations regarding contemporary Jewish life. But successes are limited to college campus outreach programs and major urban centers with already significant and active Jewish populations. What about the smaller Jewish communities across North America in need of more structure and organizational involvement?
Birthright is more than just a new rite of passage; it is becoming a definitive feature of American Judaism. Unless it provides tools or references for Jewish life outside of marriage and the family, this brief and expensive moment of Jewish identification will fail to create any lasting substance capable of nourishing and enlivening future generations.
Jillian Powers is a postdoctoral fellow in American culture studies at Washington University in St. Louis.