Right before the royal wedding and Osama's descent into Hell, a brief press item reported that North American Jewish Federations "generated nearly $2.5 billion for program needs in 2010." Most Jewish community leaders seem to agree that continuity is a key challenge, and that Jewish education is the key ingredient to strengthening Jewish identity and securing the future of the Jewish people. And yet, Birthright Israel -- which brings young Jews to Israel for free 10-day Israel tours with no strings attached -- is considered to be the silver bullet of Jewish identity. So what's not to like...?
If (1) the cornerstone of our Jewish future is supposed to be promoting Jewish identity; (2) $2.5 billion was raised last year in North America (though serving the elderly and the poor and supporting Israel are also high-ticket necessities); (3) presumably several hundred million was spent on Jewish schools, camps, and informal education; and (4) the best thing we did was send kids to Israel for ten days -- then why even bother with Jewish education at all? Isn't it better to just invest in El Al futures?
So maybe that's a rhetorical question, or maybe it's just sarcastic. Oops.
My expectation is that truly independent research would show that Birthright is not so successful overall, that many of the kids who return with a strong Jewish identity already had it or that it wears off pretty fast. The fact is, when Birthright was first designed, there was basically no follow-up programming, and even today, what was tacked on after the fact reaches 10-15 percent of the Birthright alumni in any meaningful way. The fact is, most of the tour operators have no consistent standards for training and overseeing counselors on Birthright trips, and the most prevalent qualification is prior experience as a Birthright participant.
The fact is, Birthright Israel was not developed inductively by a disinterested task force as the most effective way to assure Jewish continuity -- it was forced upon the Federation movement by a handful of major donors who leveraged their own charitable dollars with matching funds from the Federations, the Government of Israel, and the Jewish Agency. The original research was focused on identifying the most effective model for youth trips to Israel, not weighing free travel against more coordinated outreach in the United States.
Meanwhile, the families most committed to a Jewish future are paying $15,000-20,000 annually in day school tuition PER CHILD, even after all the donations are counted in. And if the biological key to continuity is having Jewish babies, those producing the most kids shoulder an untenable financial burden. I'm not even referring to the "yeshiva community", but to mainstream modern Orthodox and classical Conservative Jews.
Realistically, taking back all the Birthright money from the past decade and applying it to Jewish education here in North America would not be sufficient to make a big dent in day school budgets. But it is time for some serious soul-searching and truth-telling. Quick fixes sound really good, but we insult ourselves by taking such myths at face value and by trusting the analysis of experts whose future earnings will depend upon the same institutions they are reviewing (or those they are not criticizing... oops, again).