08 November 2009

Debate for the Sake of Heaven

I woke up this morning to read various news sources and noticed that the issue of birthright bringing Gordon Robertson to address alumni was picked up by a lot of Jewish sources, there's not really a forum to debate this issue in any kind of productive way.

This is frustrating for a couple reasons.

One, birthright is a communal strategy but it's not really being shaped and debated in any kind of true communal context. Rather, the money is calling the shots and the educational or core Jewish values are given a back seat to the assumed strategic goal--in-marriage--as opposed to, say, values-based Jewish identity formation. This has created a kind of "pay to play" or even a "get paid to play" philosophy, where constructive criticism is pushed away from the table. Not very Jewish if you ask me.

The Gordon Robertson program is a classic idea to deconstruct. It's cut straight out of the Shmuley Boteach playbook--the ecstasy of flash with little content, publicity for its own sake. And marketed to the audience as something they'll want to listen to. But what percentage of birthright participants are asking themselves daily questions about Jews for Jewish or the Evangelical Christian Right and its relationship to Zionism and Israel? I'd guess very few.

I sat with a group of a few dozen high school seniors the other day and when we asked them what they planned on doing after getting accepted to college this fall and spring, nearly two-thirds said that they planned on doing a gap year in Israel, abroad, or here in the states with City Year. Their desire for service, for linking their developing Jewish identities to the core Jewish value of serving others didn't surprise me. Over and over again I hear this from young people: a deep concern for the state of the world and a burning desire to do something about it. With a jobless rate exceeding 17%, with the popular perception that the rich are getting richer and with so many sectors of our national infrastructure here and in Israel in dire need of repair, it's disheartening to see the community's greatest short-term success--birthright--squander its resources on its own insular agenda without regularly putting around the table a core group of rabbis (yes, actual rabbis who work as rabbis in communities with Jews on a daily basis!), teachers and entrepreneurs and activists to help hammer out a more substantive agenda.

So why doesn't it happen?

Two reasons immediately come to mind. The first, which is virtually undeniable, is a nearly overt bias against the synagogue. The straw man here is the "boring, empty synagogue" which has lost its hold on the center of Jewish life. It's a false assumption, a kind of figment of the imagination, and even if it were moderately true in some cases (there are good synagogues and bad synagogues) it's not as if there is something being proposed to replace it. What we are left with is a kind of careless investment strategy born from the high risk ventures of the 1980s down to today that throws money at ideas, hoping one will stick. The rabbis who founded the synagogue movement of 2000 years ago, give or take a century, weren't so careless in their planning. And if one looks at what lasted as the enduring institution, it stand to reason that investing in good synagogues could be well worth the money.

Second, related to the first, is that real investment takes time and patience and sacrifice. A board member sat next to me at a meeting the other day, sharing his sons texts from college. He's a freshman at an Ivy League school and his favorite class is Freshman Hebrew. His parents spend a hunk of their income each year on their own trips to ulpan in Israel and though the kids have yet to go (they'll likely go on birthright!) they are investing in their linguistic infrastructure and owning it with pride. That's what THEY are willing to PAY FOR! Why? Because it matters. The ruse that birthright succeeds at getting kids to care because it's such a great trip has to be held against the light of what would happen if people had to pay for it. Invest in it from the start. That's a study I'd like to see.

I'd bet some good money that you'd see more push back from the base that pays when a program like Jews for Jesus comes to birthright next. I think you'd get more of a response like, "What are you doing with my money?" Instead, we rabbis are left to sit on the sidelines--because real communal debate rarely happens these days.

Of the 450 people who cam to our Brooklyn Jews High Holy Days service, we had an average age of 29 years old (yes, we surveyed them!) And they gave more than $6000 to support a free service. Alt-shul, the Indie Minyan that meets at CBE also has an average age of under thirty and they raised nearly $8000 for the CBE Yom Kippur Appeal. We've got 15 Shabbat in the Hood programs on the books for Brooklyn Jews this year, 15 students under 30 in a Basic Judaism class, and a few dozen coming into the synagogue--yes, the synagogue--for a monthly Friday night service. Again, if I were investing in Jewish life (which I am with more sweat than money) I'd bet for success on those willing to roll up their sleeves and work toward what they want rather than on those who are being offered free entertainment.

I keep thinking of the irony of Abraham and Sarah leaving Haran with "the souls they acquired." And the rabbis famous insight that these were people they had converted to Judaism. They made them into Jews BEFORE they went on their journey to the Land of Israel, the sacred task that synagogues have endeavored to do for nearly 2000 years.

Hark, ye Foundation Rabbis! Hark ye Rabbis of birthright! Answer the call of your people! And for God sakes, live up to your title and don't be afraid of debate.

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