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A Jewish student approached a rabbi, confessing he had sinned:
Student: Rabbi, I ate a pork sandwich on Yom Kippur.
Rabbi: You know that it's forbidden to eat on Yom Kippur.
Student: It slipped my mind.
Rabbi: You know that pork is not kosher.
Student: I know.
Rabbi: Why did you do it?
Student: I forgot I was Jewish!
Terrified that American Jewish college students were forgetting they were Jewish, Yossi Beilin gave birth to an idea. Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, two US Jewish philanthropists, adopted it. They determined that it was every Jewish child's "birthright" to come to Israel; thus, the name of the project, which has become the new "savior" of the North American Jewish community.
Thousands of college-age youth have come here since the beginning of birthright israel. The slogan of this dramatic effort is: "It's free. That's right; Israel is 'on-the-house,' Judaism is 'for sale.'"
It's called outreach. If you are an unaffiliated Jew, never having been active in Jewish life, you are rewarded. It is your "birthright" to come to your homeland.
BIRTHRIGHT enthusiasts would be well advised to read the biblical story of Jacob and Esau. Esau gave up his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil soup. But Jacob's mere acquisition of the birthright did not give him entitlement to it. It was only after years of struggling, whereby he served his uncle Laban as little more than a slave for 21 years that he ultimately earned the name Israel, legitimately inheriting the birthright (Genesis 32:25-29).
Nothing comes easy like water from a faucet. One has to work hard to achieve something of value. When something is given away for free, you can deduce it is not worth much. To crown someone with the grand Jewish prize of coming to Israel - for being Jewishly apathetic is to tell that person: Judaism is cheap.
AMERICAN JEWS are turning Israel into a Jewish Disney World - instant entertainment that provides momentary pleasure, and little lasting effect. Yet such a quick-fix is supposed to save the Diaspora Jewish community and guarantee its perpetuity.
Given the public relations hype that surrounds the program, one would think that birthright is a resounding success. The number of participants drives this euphoria. If one really wants to measure the success of this give-away program in numerical terms, offer the same students a free trip to the Bahamas.
To fully understand the effect a short-term Israel program has on North American Jewish youth, one should examine sociologist Erik Cohen's studies of tens of thousands of summer participants in Israel programs over the last few years. While 80% (or more) responded positively to such questions as: Did your Jewish identity increase, do you feel more religious and are you a Zionist; the same number said that they see no problem in marrying a non-Jew who would not convert.
When these lightning visits fail to make a dent in the battle against assimilation - birthright israel will point the finger at the Israeli government. They will claim that Israel let them down; as if the impoverishment of Jewish education and Jewish family life in the Diaspora, coupled with the sociological reality of being an insignificant minority in a sea of non-Jews, have little to do with the sorry state of Diaspora Jewish affairs.
One wonders what happened to the educational advisors of the Jewish philanthropists behind birthright. The professionals know that lasting Jewish commitment begins at birth and is nurtured throughout one's lifetime.
Would it not have been wiser for wealthy Jews to have invested the approximately $250 million spent on birthright thus far on building academically prestigious Jewish day-schools that go through high school?
If the educational quality of such schools were competitive with the best of the private schools in cities like Dallas, Detroit, Cleveland, Washington DC, then Jews, instead of sending their children to Ursiline Academy or the Friends School or St. Thomas Aquinas, would send them to a Jewish day school. Such an education could include - as part of its curriculum - a semester in Israel.
AND YET, no one should fault the North American Jewish leadership for its noble attempts at securing a Jewish future through the use of Israel. A short visit here can be very powerful, even for the Jewishly uninitiated. But one must recognize that while birthright looks and sounds good on paper, it is essentially an act of desperation.
But, even in desperation, one needs to think clearly about how best to secure that Jewish future; and therefore reexamine one's educational and ideological goals, and where best to expend one's financial resources.
Short-term solutions do not solve long-term failures. The influence of birthright israel will remain marginal unless it serves one purpose only: aliya. This goal should be the main principle behind all Diaspora Jewish education, including Jewish day schools; and they have a far greater possibility of encouraging aliya than does birthright.
If North American Jews wish to reclaim their Jewish self, they will have to follow the path of the Jewish tradition, which requires them to earn their birthright; and like Jacob "become Israel" by ultimately moving to the Jewish state - the singular prescription for long-term Jewish success.
The writer is the author of Fifty Ways to Be Jewish.