(photo credit: Taglit-birthright)
About as many young Jews return from Taglit-Birthright Israel and seem inspired to attend Jewish events as young Jews who return from doing service work in Mexico participate in Cinco de Mayo celebrations.
The figure, published in a new report by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, that 44 percent of birthright returnees have not participated in any Jewish activities is abysmal. Since participants love the experience, and birthright gets them to Israel, many will mistakenly assume that the problem is only on the home side - that the follow up programming through Birthright Israel NEXT is not connecting them sufficiently to Jewish life in the US.
But as important as Birthright Israel NEXT is, the real need is to create an appetite for Jewish life while they are here doing Birthright. Creating the appetite is a challenge, but it ain't rocket science - the best of Jewish camps, Hillels, Chabad and Israeli-based institutions have been doing it for a long time. It's a combination of bringing them into events of deep meaning and direct participation (rather than as tourists watching others' experiences), and the passionate, charismatic and, above all, authentic people they encounter. This is how it works.
â€¢ Participants need to have a real Shabbat. Get rid of the soul-denying hotel or conference Shabbat with motivational speakers with canned speeches and choirs of adolescents from the IDF. In the end, it's just a long dinner and boring show. It hasn't worked for Federation missions; why should it work for our youth?
Israel excels at providing life-changing Shabbat experiences. Birthright participants need to go in groups of two or three, to spend at least a Friday night with a Jerusalem or kibbutz family. Let them join services, make the Shabbat walk home, feel the warmth and good cooking at the table and participate in the family discussion and political debate (in the half-English, half-Hebrew that most Israelis have). It will open them up not only to Israeli life, but to a Jewishly replicable experience when they are back home and can decide to participate in a Birthright Israel NEXT Shabbat meal.
And it is even better if they are here for a second Shabbat. Let them divide up into small groups, go out to the aromatic, lively shouk of Jerusalem, Jaffa, Beersheba or Haifa, with a shopping list they have prepared. Let them cook their own meal, and invite others - a special Israeli guest or family. They can make Shabbat.
â€¢ Let them go out and do hands-on service for their fellows Jews. This must be a center piece of every trip. They need to be introduced to hessed and the feeling of Jewish solidarity that emerges from an authentic attempt to help heal and repair (tikun) a harsh situation.
â€¢ Give them rudimentary skills that will bring them back to specific Jewish experiences. Livnot U'lehibanot does a bang-up job in having every group, no matter the season, do a Purim party (down to the skill of creating a meaningful costume) and a Tu Bishvat seder. The alumni themselves can then host and create for themselves and friends rocking parties and sedarim around the country. You can't reclimb Masada in West Bloomfield, Michigan, but you can eat a hamantasch and drink four cups of wine.
â€¢ Engage their minds Jewishly. These are smart people. Real Torah study that they participate in from the get-go is startlingly transformational. The Torah can become their birthright as well, not just something that is restricted to certain types of Jews.
â€¢ And engage their hearts - this is a generation hungry for spirituality. They can learn Jewish dances and Jewish songs on their encounter and they can also have a true spiritual experience. It is a terrible injustice for participants to come to the Kotel unprepared to offer a prayer and to just be uneasy onlookers; it is a waste not to have a bus utter the morning Shema at dawn from the peak of Har Adar after a night hike.
ALL OF THIS - and there is a lot more - are not just stand-alone components to be added. Respect the participants and demand more from them. Respect the Jewish people and Judaism and offer much more of both. And do it with passionate committed people who are here: From the open-minded haredi (they exist) to the Tel Aviv intellectual who has rediscovered the Jewish bookshelf.
And to Messrs. Steinhart, Bronfman, Adelson, Ms. Schusterman, federation and Israeli government representatives who will certainly be taking a hard look at the project, make sure your providers and staff themselves have a meaningful Jewish life. A good rule of thumb is if they themselves have never had participants over to their homes for a kiddush or spent some time engaging with Jewish texts, then they don't have the inner fire nor the love.
Passion and participation can create the appetite for Jewish life. Birthright is too important for all of us for it not to work.
The writer is the director of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He blogs at www.shtenderthoughts.pardes.org.