23 March 2009


Are you kidding me?

We're supposed to believe this kind of "study" coming out of the Jewish community?

Communities Must Do More to Attract Birthright Alums
, Sue Fishkoff's piece in today's JTA seems to inexplicably place the blame on other communities for not "attracting" (like bees to honey? like boys to girls? like steel to magnets?) Jews to Jewish life.

Here's the report: Tourists, Travelers and Citizens. Found at the Brandeis University Cohen Center website.

Let's take this argument apart.

How long did it take birthright, after it's founding, to create an official post-trip programming arm? I lost count after five years but I think the official answer is 7-8 years--on the national level for sure.

And in that time period--when I worked at Hillel at NYU, ran Brooklyn Jews, and as a congregational rabbi in what is known as an "attractive" neighborhood, I always got one answer and one answer alone when asking for lists of birthright alumni in our "attractive" area: NO.

Plain and simple: NO.

Various answers included that they were developing their own Alumni "Network," and were getting ready to roll out their own birthright NEXT program (apparently it's "attractive" to put some words in small case letters and other words in ALL CAPS. It makes things more "attractive" for the NEXT GENeration.


The thesis is flawed. The "organized" (and hey, I can tell you from the inside, it's NOT organized) Jewish community is boring and out of touch. Young people don't know it because they're not interested. Blah, blah, blah.

So we have to start all new initiatives to replace the bad, boring, broken stuff. We're what's NEXT. Get it?

Problem is, young people are savvier and they all don't appear in shiny studies paid for by academic departments that are underwritten by the philanthropists that create the "attractive" programs. It's a silly loop.

I have several birthright alumni in my weekly Basic Judaism class; one birthright alumna works here at CBE just after she got her BA from NYU; another birthright alum walked into our SYNAGOGUE today (she studies Library Science at the Pratt Institute) to interview for a gig to reconfigure our OLD SHUL LIBRARY and make it a robust learning center with some tweaking and reorganization.

You know what she told me, "I love OLD BOOKS!" I told her she was forbidden from liking anything more than 17 minutes old, unless it was 2000 years old and she saw it on a birthright trip!

Just kidding.

We've never surveyed our attendees from the FREE Brooklyn Jews High Holy Days services but I bet we have a robust population of birthright participants there, too. You know how we found them? BY OURSELVES! Through NETWORKING and WORD OF MOUTH and PROGRAMMING that has INTEGRITY. We even raise MONEY from those attendees, teaching them the age old language of OBLIGATION, which in HEBREW is translated as MITZVAH.

Come on people: NEXT time you decide to issue one of these steamy press releases, send a preview copy to me so I can be better prepared with SPF 36 (that's double-chai to you, buster!) to protect myself from the bright lights and hot air headed in my direction.

From the trenches: Jews are made one at a time. Release the lists to those who know what they're doing and aren't afraid to say everything isn't for free.


David A.M. Wilensky said...

amen selah.

dlevy said...

I haven't read the entire study yet, but part of what I took away from the JTA article is exactly what you're saying... the problem wasn't awareness of programming, but the lack of enough programming that meets the needs of this group - needs like intimacy and depth. It's annoying that Birthright needed a study to prove to themselves (or their funders) what many of us already knew, but if the study helps get those lists released, or gets the smaller, more content-rich programs funded, then I say bring on the studies.

Andy Bachman said...

I'm not sure, dlevy. Dollars spent on studies to reveal the obvious when the infrastructure needs shoring up--seems a massive waste of dough. But we live in a culture that privileges a certain kind of quantitative expertise over qualitative character and wisdom. Our service sector in general in buckling under the weight of consultancies. Plenty of people have been saying this for years but we've gotten ourselves addicting to only being able to hear it from certain kinds of experts. Meanwhile, time's a wasting.

The good news is that the same JTA post had an article about some philanthropies' efforts to encourage greater amounts of service. The world's in a whole heap of trouble. We don't need to pay for studies to tell us that, now, do we?

Kung Fu Jew 18 said...

Thanks for sharing some of the inside baseball on this, Andy. I quoted some of it over at Jewschool (and thanks to dlevy for sending us the link to this post). Particularly, I think it's obvious that NEXT could be hundreds of percents more useful it they opened up their partnerships.

dlevy said...

Actually, David A.M. Wilensky sent the link along. :)

silence36 said...

What do you expect from a gargantuan organization that is only throwing money at "a problem" (does this sound familiar as we watch the bloat in our economy cause a melt-down) rather than recognizing that there isn't a problem. Rather there is a sea-change in the way people are seeing the world and being Jewish in that world which is shifting and blending culturally, economically, spiritually, artistically, sexually, and racially. SO SURPRISE! The study also says that culture is the meeting ground. Duh! So go ahead and offer as many as religious programs as you like, the "Shabbat in a box" answer, but you will still only turn on a very small percentage.

Andy Bachman said...

Silent One: Jews seeing themselves culturally is not new at all. Don't be fooled into paradigm shifts until we have a good hundred years of historical perspective to know what is going on. I just don't think any of us are really in position to judge what is and isn't a sea-change. Last I checked, 45 million Americans lacked adequate health care. So the more things change...

And by the way, sexual and racial blending impacts religious life as well, so don't knock Shabbat in or outside a box. ( I like in, during the winter, usually.)

You misread me if you think I'm privileging religion over culture. I would argue that when it comes to Jewishness, they are indistinguishable. Culture is A meeting ground; relgion is A meeting ground; Israel is A meeting ground. How it all gets integrated and/or understood takes years to grasp--a timeline that our increasingly attention deficit afflicted masses have decreasing amounts of patience for. I can only attack that problem by trying to limit the amount of time my kids spend on-line in exchange for time in the Park or reading a book.

Dan said...

Who is to be the judge of "those who know what they're doing"?

Andy Bachman said...

I'll chair that committee. Would you like me to suggest a few other names as well?