27 May 2010

birthright next: all the *rage*

Michael Steinhardt defends birthright next in a new op-ed in the Jewish Week that essentially rehearses all the old arguments about why birthright next is succeeding despite what the critics say.  His answer:  Because we say it is. 

My own experience is otherwise.  And even the statistical analysis done by his own Jewish civil servants indicates that the numbers are merely duplicating efforts already in place.  birthright next's Rabbi Daniel Brenner will tout numbers quotients like 12,000 & 30,00 and 100,000, leading his bosses and funders to believe that great successes are being made with a return on their investment.  But really, this is just like selling a mortgage twice.  If alumni lists were actually shared and actual data collected, we'd see that young Jews are being reached in all sorts of ways, well beyond the specific brand of birthright next. 

As an example:  Since Brooklyn Jews was founded in 2005, we have hosted a free high holy days service for young people.  Each year the average attendance is 400-500 people.  Let's do the math.  That's topping out at 2500 people in five years in Park Slope.  Is that number impressive?  I don't know.  Of those who attended, about 15% give money to help support the free service.  Is that impressive?  I don't know.  Of those 2500, about 150-300 attend various Brooklyn Jews Shabbat programming and classes each year.  Is that impressive?  I don't know. 

But you know what else I don't know?  Who among those people are birthright alumni.  We don't know because birthright next won't let us know who lives in the Brooklyn zip codes.  It's not like birthright next regularly does Brooklyn programming--Michael Steinhardt's free trip to see the Batsheva Dance Company at the BAM notwithstanding--so what gives?

In his article, Steinhardt cites his partnerships:
We have worked creatively with Jewish communal organizations of all stripes: from the Council of Young Jewish Presidents, to Friends of the Israel Defense Forces; from the Jewish Book Council and the Israeli Consulate, to Dorot and Artists 4 Israel. Indeed, our list of partners is long.
All worthy organizations, to be sure, but really--this is the list you choose to use for publication?  This is your coordinated attack on saving the Jewish future?  What even IS the Council of Young Jewish Presidents?  Is there a Council of Old Jewish Presidents?

Part of this whole thing has to do with the general pathology of money and what it does to people.  In certain sectors of the Jewish community, money is spent as the result of a tug-of-war between experts and philanthropists, who dance around their barely veiled disdain for one another.  In Michael Steinhardt's case, that disdain is not even contained.  He regularly rants against sociologists, academics, and non-Orthodox rabbis, while continually trumpeting his "secular" sensibilities and generosity as an expression of his desire to make "Jewish Joy."  (What is that, kosher dishwashing liquid?)  Everyone nods and smiles kindly while rolling their eyes behind his back at how he continually rants against anyone who gets in his way.

Michael's deep seated hatred for much of Jewish life that he keeps trying to improve by "overcoming Brooklyn" (his birthright) is made manifest by his insistence that birthright next do things his way.  This radical independence is held up as "what the Jewish community needs" because the "old institutions" are all wrong for the "Jewish future" and is one of the most bankrupt rhetorical devices used today.  And it's generally enabled by those of often stand in line, holding their noses, while hoping to get a few table scraps of investment in what we're doing to bring more Torah (broadly speaking) to the world.   And that, in psychological terms (yes, I'm going psychological here) leads to a cycle of abuse which is happily exploited by the raging abuser.

I dare anyone to successfully argue that a single quotable Jewish Sage from the last two thousand years would tolerate this kind of behavior. 

What I find particularly galling about this whole ridiculous debate is how pretentious and unrealistic it is.  This year alone I have converted about ten people to Judaism.  The amount of time it takes to make a Jew is incalculable.  There is not a quotient (unlike hedge-fundology) which indicates how many hours make a Jew.  Nor is there a quotient which can predict, based on investment, when a young Jew who has been on a trip to Israel will finally decide to truly take responsibility for his or her birthright on their own terms--not because someone is paying for it.

Thank God that I can partner with certain generous people in the Jewish community who understand that Jews are made one person at a time; that Hebrew is learned one letter at a time; that Torah is learned one word at a time; and that the world is redeemed through one act of lovingkindness after another.


Amanda said...

It seems to me the real question is not whether birthright next is successful or not (if people are going to shabbat services, classes, etc then all that is good), but is why won't they let others leverage the alumni names. Sharing those names should not take away from Birthright Next, just provide another avenue for folks seeking something Jewish. We should not engage in a battle of whether the path he is providing will get someone there or not, but why not offer different paths for folks to choose from. Maybe they will take both paths. What difference does it make. So, I agree with you that the alumni names should be shared, but I don't think you strengthen your argument by negating the work he is doing/attempting to do.

Hineni said...

The Jewish community continues to operate according to the Golden Rule: He who has the gold makes the rule.