On November 26, 2017, Haaretz published an article entitled “How Orthodox Groups Are Taking Over Birthright, and Using It to Target Young US Jews.” The thrust of the article was that the Union for Reform Judaism, the “largest Jewish movement in the United States,” had been dropped as a certified trip provider for Birthright, despite its having served in that capacity since Birthright was founded in 1999. The article went on to suggest that this development was part of a “growing trend”—while the overwhelming majority of Birthright participants do not affiliate as Orthodox, Orthodox-affiliated trip providers nonetheless account for a growing share of Birthright recruitment. According to Haaretz, while the Reform movement will no longer provide Birthright trips, about one-third of trip participants identify as Reform, while one-quarter of Birthright participants are on trips provided by Orthodox organizations— Mayanot (affiliated with Chabad); Israel Free Spirit (the OU-affiliated Birthright program); and Ezra World (affiliated with the Orthodox Ezra youth movement). The Haaretz piece went on to suggest that “the increasing dominance of Orthodox organizations in the Birthright recruitment process also happens to coincide with the emergence of Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson as a major figurehead in the organization,” and that “Adelson shares ideological beliefs with many on the Israeli right.”
Not satisfied with divisive political conspiracy theories, Haaretz then revealed its true fear: Birthright participation might actually result in Jewish young adults strengthening their Jewish identities upon their return from Israel. The article cites Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism: “When Birthright participants return from their trips with these [Orthodox] providers, there are lots of efforts made to get them to explore a more traditional way of Judaism—and that is something that should not be ignored.” Quite so.
Birthright is an extraordinary organization. Since its inception, it has brought over 400,000 Diaspora Jews to Israel on transformational trips that allow young Jews, aged eighteen to twenty-six, to encounter their homeland, interact with Israeli culture, and strengthen their Jewish identity. This past year alone, Birthright brought 48,000 participants to Israel. It is, in the view of many, the single most successful Jewish Diaspora project of all time.
The fact is that since the inception of the Birthright project, the number of trip organizers has dropped from a high of thirty-three to ten (in the United States) today. The Conservative movement stopped providing Birthright trips ten years ago. The Reform movement was dropped as an organizer, not on religious or political grounds, but because it could not meet the minimum participation numbers required by Birthright of all trip organizers, regardless of religious (or secular) orientation. (You don’t get eliminated as a Birthright trip organizer by failing to meet recruiting goals once; you must fall short in two of the last three rounds.) In short, while almost one-third of Birthright trip participants self-identified as Reform, the Reform movement was unable to recruit its own kids! This apparent conundrum led the Birthright CEO to observe: “You need to ask the participants who go with the other trip providers why they prefer them, and you need to ask the Reform movement and the Conservative movement, which was also a trip provider until about ten years ago, why they are not attracting enough participants . . .”
One might speculate about the reasons for this phenomenon. Perhaps it is the result of the increasing invisibility of the Reform and Conservative movements on campuses across the United States, where much of Birthright recruitment takes place. Perhaps it is the result of the growing ambivalence (indeed, often the open hostility) within progressive movements towards Israel as well as its government and institutional structures. Or perhaps it is the fact that young Jews—who alone decide what trip and trip organizer best suits their needs and aspirations for their Israel experience—are voting with their feet.
So there you have it. The classic Haaretz three-step: if there is something in the Jewish world that leaves you uncomfortable, blame the Orthodox, or the Israeli government—or Sheldon Adelson!
Were the phenomenon limited to Haaretz, it might be offensive, but wouldn’t precipitate the far more profound reaction that leaves me livid. Why? Because this reaction threatens the very survival of the Jewish people, and it must therefore be responded to with all the zeal we can muster. There are those within our community who seek—consciously and affirmatively—to strip Jews of Judaism and who view Jewish peoplehood as nothing more than a cultural manifestation of affinity. God and His eternal Torah are irrelevant to (indeed, to some, antithetical to) the true expression of the Jewish people. And so religious values are anathema; faith is anathema; God and Torah are beside the point. And Orthodoxy as the dynamic embodiment of religious values must be relegated to the outmoded trash bin of history and excised at all cost.
How painful is this? We, the Orthodox community, are not affected by such attacks. They make not a dent in our eternal faith. But what of acheinu kol beit Yisrael, those who seek, who yearn for a relationship with the Almighty and His Torah?
In the increasingly cynical and partisan fissures within the Jewish world, Birthright is a breath of fresh air. It has brought together an array of generous donors and trip provider organizations who span the ideological and religious spectrum. Its overarching goal is to inspire Jewish identity and greater affinity to our beloved homeland. We should be grateful to Birthright’s visionary leadership—and equally grateful to the wonderful young people who know what they seek in a Birthright experience—and are perfectly capable of choosing the trip provider that best speaks to their aspirations and needs. As Gil Troy has recently noted: “Birthright works because it’s a Jewish identity-building program empowering participants to navigate their own Jewish journeys—with no strings attached. We—the older generation—give the gift. Our reward is watching young Jews engage their heritage in new, exciting ways.”
And Birthright has been extremely successful. According to the recent report of the Brandeis University Jewish Futures Project, Birthright participants are more likely to feel a connection to Israel; have a Jewish spouse (overall, the likelihood of marrying a Jewish spouse is 62 percent for an average Birthright participant and 46 percent for an average non-participant); raise Jewish children and be engaged in Jewish life.
I am extraordinarily proud of our Israel Free Spirit program and its iconic follow-up programming. The OU Birthright trips have the highest rate of trip extenders than any of the certified Birthright trip providers—almost four times the average. For many Israel Free Spirit participants, the highlight of the trip is choosing to have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, usually held atop Masada. For quite a few participants, this emotional moment, in which many choose a Hebrew name and affirm their Jewish identity, represents their first connection to Judaism.
Our unique Birthright follow-up program offers innovative approaches to transform participants’ Birthright Israel trip into a lifelong bond with Israel and with the Jewish people.
For example, Bring Israel Home is a “competition” where Birthright trip alumni complete an array of challenges—Jewish and Israel-related activities—to qualify for a reunion trip together with the Israeli trip participants who are brought to the US. Over 100,000 Jewish activities have been performed by over 6,000 participants in Bring Israel Home. Bring Back Shabbat is yet another OU Birthright follow-up program, in which Birthright alumni host Shabbat meals for their peers on college campuses, with the goal of making Jewish life more vibrant, inclusive and accessible on campuses across North America.
But instead of celebrating these accomplishments, Haaretz chooses to criticize them—solely because they are “Orthodox.” Sadly, the Haaretz attitude robs the broader community of the energy, the dynamism, the talent and the commitment that the Orthodox community brings to the entirety of the Jewish people.
Each year, tens of thousands of young people participate in a broad array of OU programs designed to engage non-observant Jewish youth and collegiates with Jewish pride and incorporate Jewish values in their lives. Each year, we spend tens of millions of dollars on NCSY, the Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (OU-JLIC), Yachad/The National Jewish Council for Disabilities and Israel Free Spirit programming focused outside the Orthodox community.
And we in the Orthodox community are uniquely well-suited to carry out this critical responsibility. As I’ve written previously:
The . . . Orthodox community is positioned and uniquely prepared to engage with our less observant co-religionists. This vast majority of us have been privileged to receive an outstanding yeshivah education. We are Jewishly literate. And we are secularly literate. We are Jewishly committed, and our commitment is genuine and contagious.
And we take this passion for our fellow Jew as well as this wealth of education, talent and skill, and we infuse it into the world of Jewish education and communal life. We are not embarrassed by this commitment to our fellow Jews; we celebrate it.
Our goal is to reach those whose link with their Jewish identity and with Israel has been broken or severely diminished—to cultivate and renew feelings of pride and connection, based on tradition, Jewish values and the eternal wisdom of our sages. This goal thrives on unity, not on divisive rhetoric.
Allen I. Fagin is executive vice president of the OU.