Monday, November 3, 2014

The Unintended Consequences of the Success of Birthright

So this is a response in the comments section on eJewish Philanthropy to Robbie Gringras's recent post, "8 Cities, 11 Flights, 4 Questions." They and I felt it deserved wider attention. I think it is very well stated.

By Andi Meiseles

Robbie, your excellent piece prompts me to share with you and this forum something that has been troubling me professionally and personally for several years: the unintended consequences of the success of Birthright.

This is not a “knock” against Birthright, but the articulation of a concern I’ve long held and which, as your article points out, we are now seeing realized. Birthright has done a wonderful job of engaging young Jews who might never have visited Israel or shown any interest in their Jewish heritage. There are serious educators and professionals involved in the endeavor, many of whom I know personally and respect deeply. It is a great first experience and has spurred many participants to return to Israel or to become more involved in Jewish life. However, a 10-day trip should not be the accepted standard in our community for engagement with Israel.

If anything, my issue is with a community which has allowed Birthright to become its default “Israel experience.” The success of Birthright has come at the expense of programs which offer a longer experience and cultivate a deeper relationship with Israel. In so doing it has affected the profile of much of the leadership cadre of the American Jewish community. What was once a rite of passage, the summer “teen” tour, has been diminished to a fraction of what it was, thereby reducing its role as a feeder to longer term programs. Numbers of Jewish students in university semester (much less year) programs have dropped dramatically in the last decade. Fewer and fewer young Jews are spending significant periods of time in Israel, which means that fewer young, Jewish professionals have had the opportunity to build a deep knowledge base about Israel and Israelis. Once upon a time, it was hard to find a leader in the Jewish communal or educational world who had not spent a year or semester in Israel. As you note, this is not the case today. This void is most apparent in times of crisis for Israel, as you witnessed on your “grand tour.”

Although I’ve had a long career in Jewish and Israel education, both in the US and in Israel, I became aware of this shift and its potential impact on the community from sources outside of it. When I began my current position (as the North American representative for international academic affairs for Ben-Gurion University of the Negev) I learned of the reach of Birthright from directors of study abroad at universities across the continent. These seasoned and savvy professionals in international education (largely non-Jews, by the way) know their work, their field and the trends. It is from them that I learned that “…this program called Birthright, which is free…” was drawing students away from long-term study in Israel. They noted the sharp decline in numbers to Israel since its inception and pointed out to me that the main issue was not necessarily security. While these professionals have seen many cycles of security-related highs and lows over the years, they also tend to view Israel as one of the safest places to study due to the outstanding security protocols that the country has in place. Rather, they attribute the decline in numbers to the “been there, done that” effect.

As my staff and I sit at study abroad fairs at universities and colleges, we experience the same scenario time and time again: An excited and enthusiastic student will approach us and the following dialogue will ensue: Student: “I LOVE Israel! I just did Birthright. ” University Rep: “Wonderful! I’m so glad you had such a great time. How about coming back and spending more time, really getting to know the country?” Student: “Been there, done that.” Literally. In those words. They can check Israel off on their list and are now off to Spain, or Kenya or Laos or any number of other exotic study abroad destinations. They have “done” Israel.

I worried about this phenomenon before this summer in Gaza, and I worry more now. With limited exposure to Israel, without the time to really understand the layers and complications that you have so beautifully articulated, and which take time to sort out (actually, it is impossible to sort them all out; it takes time just to identify and wrestle with these layers) students and, as you more importantly point out, dedicated Jewish communal professionals do not have the vocabulary, the personal experience, or the knowledge to grapple with all of this at a time when their voices are desperately needed on campuses.

However, it is not only about grappling; as you note, conflict is not attractive. It is about the fact that most young Jews are missing out on the rich and beautiful experience of truly knowing Israel and her people. Real relationships take time to develop. An investment of time reaps tremendous rewards, as any graduate of a gap year or other long term program in Israel can tell you. It’s not only about what we need for them to know, it’s about what we don’t want them to miss knowing and experiencing.

Do we want our next generation to have a “been there, done that” relationship with Israel? Can we afford for them to have a relationship that is a mile wide but an inch deep? I think not.

I look to our community for thoughts, collaborations, solutions and suggestions.

Andi Meiseles is the North American representative for international academic affairs at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

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