Saturday, January 15, 2011

Bribes to Save Jewish Lives

Later last year, I started a new position in the Jewish community that centers around reaching out to Birthright Israel participants to help facilitate connections between them and the Jewish community.

I have heard a wide range of experiences concerning the trip, ranging from transformational experiences, to those for whom the trip had zero impact. Considering all of the conversation about the effectiveness, cost, and return on investment of Birthright, I want to try to put the Jewish people's investment in Birthright in context.

This is no where close to the first time that the Jewish world has invested huge amounts of money to reconnect, reunite, or relocate Jews.

Maimonides aka the Rambam, one of the most famous Jewish scholars of all time, is said to have organized several Jewish communities to pay ransom for Jewish families taken hostage by crusaders.

In the course of the modern state of Israel's short history, it has facilitated the emigration of Jews from Yemen, Ethiopia, the former USSR, and others, often using money from the American Jewish community to pay off dictators in order to let Jews go. These programs were so successful that these days there are very few Jews in need of these types of services.

While the money of previous decades was spent saving Jews from others, today, it is spent saving Jews from themselves. Programs like Birthright Israel and Masa, which spend between $1,500 to $3,000 per participant exist not only to connect (primarily American) Jewish young adults to Israel, but also to ignite and strengthen participants' sense of Jewish identity. Whereas previous efforts and dollars focused on Jews in poverty or facing threats, many of the programs today target relatively affluent Jews.

With a wide range of Jewish foundational, Federation, and Israeli government support, these programs have taken several hundred thousand Jewish young adults to Israel for 10 day, or longer experiences. In fact, a Birthright experience is becoming almost as common as a bar or bat mitzvah. And why not? It is almost as highly incentivized.

The enormous amount of money being spent on these programs raises a number of questions, not just about the effectiveness of the programs, but also the ideas behind them. For example, should every Jewish person feel as though a free trip to Israel is literally their birthright? If so, are they going to be willing to reinvest in the future for someone else's trip? Does the trip make them any more likely to become philanthropically involved in the Jewish community? Is there some point at which providing so many free and deeply subsidized trips actually decreases the willingness of a participant to pay for something of the like in the future?

Perhaps, even with Birthright, we shouldn't set the bar too high. After all, while both the Soviet- and Ethiopian-Jewish Exodus brought Jews to safer places, the missions were not totally successful. In the United States, many of those Russian immigrants never found their place in the Jewish community, and now, many more of their children feel very little connection at all. In Israel, Ethiopians continue to face disproportionate levels of poverty and many feel disenfranchised.

With a huge share of Jewish philanthropic dollars now going towards young adult identity building, and what some say equates to bribing people to be Jewish, we have to hope that programs are effective, and that the dollars are well invested. Although it seems less dramatic than the thought of Jews threatened by the KGB, civil war, famine, or pogroms, the Jewish community has clearly decided that losing Jews to assimilation is no less of a crisis.

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