How Birthright made me a cynic - opinion

I lost my faith. Not in God whom I’m fine with (most of the time), I mean the whole “Birthright = the Salvation of the Jewish World” thing.

 BIRTHRIGHT PARTICIPANTS attend an event at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem in 2015, celebrating ten years since the inception of the program. (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
BIRTHRIGHT PARTICIPANTS attend an event at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem in 2015, celebrating ten years since the inception of the program.
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

‘Hi. My name is Doron and I’m a cynic.”

I’m a huge fan of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), but what I need is for someone to create a group called CA (Cynics Anonymous). Let me explain.

I’ve been involved in various forms of Jewish education for many years. I’ve taught in schools, lectured extensively, written some, and fulfilled a dream of mine in 2008 when I took a tour guide course in Israel and became an official Birthright tour guide. You get to teach, inspire, meet great people, hike around the most beautiful country on the planet, ride camels and wear a neat little ID around your neck that makes you feel important. How cool is that? I drank the Kool-Aid and was a huge Birthright believer for years.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way I lost my faith. Not in God whom I’m fine with (most of the time), I mean the whole “Birthright = the Salvation of the Jewish World” thing. After guiding dozens of Birthright trips over the years, it occurred to me: Over half a million Jews have come to Israel for free in less than 20 years, but did it work? Are they involved in anything Jewish? Where are they? Over time, I became cynical.

When my new friends at Olami asked me to visit them in New York in order to better understand the effectiveness of their programs, it made sense to check out the Birthright follow-up center nearby. After all, I’d been hearing about Birthright follow-up programs since I began guiding for them, but I’d never actually visited one. In any case, since Covid hit, I have plenty of time on my hands.

First Birthright Israel Group from France in Tel Aviv, after the pandemic outbreak (credit: VOLOSNIKOVA ALISA)First Birthright Israel Group from France in Tel Aviv, after the pandemic outbreak (credit: VOLOSNIKOVA ALISA)

Nestled between restaurants, bars and hotels on W. 13th Street in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, the impressive center had just been renovated and rebranded. It has an interesting origin: The Jewish community, private donors, and the State of Israel had been spending a fortune – and betting the farm, it seemed – on these free trips to Israel to keep young Jews connected to their Jewish identity. Within a couple of years of Birthright’s launch in 1999, the trip had proven itself in terms of its popularity, emotional punch, and great potential. It was hoped Birthright could stave off assimilation and literally save the Jewish people.

There was and is a catch: Birthright is an experience that lasts only ten days. No matter how powerful a ten-day experience it is, memories become distant, inspiration fades, and life, love, friends and hobbies push Birthright thoughts into the background. People return to their lives if no programming is offered after the trip; the whole thing may produce few results.

In other words, Birthright can only successfully re-ignite the next generation if there is an active follow-up program. Sadly, to this day this has never really occurred on a large scale. On the one hand, Birthright can’t solve all the world’s problems, as it exists to open doors and invite people in. Other organizations should take on the important work of follow-up. On the other hand, only Birthright has the data and no one else really is taking up the slack.  Both sides have a point, but this isn’t a blame game. No one seemed to be doing much follow-up at all. Hence, there is a real challenge to keep Birthright effective.

There have been a few exceptions to the lousy-Birthright-follow-up rule. Perhaps the most notable is what is now known as Olami Manhattan. Over drinks, I learned a bit of its history: The Jewish Enrichment Center (JEC) was the official Birthright follow-up center in Manhattan for years and was largely funded by Birthright’s donors. It described itself as a unique and welcoming home for people in their 20s and 30s to come together to learn, socialize, and get inspired. The JEC was enormously successful and became the place for tens of thousands of post-Birthright young people to mingle, learn, and (surprisingly often) meet their mates.

When Birthright eventually cut off its support (due to budget constraints, I believe, as that gorgeous venue in Manhattan couldn’t have been cheap), it was taken over by an organization called Meor Manhattan and was renamed Olami Manhattan this month as part of a growing group of centers around the world servicing Jewish students and young professionals. Olami describes itself on their website using the tagline a modern Jewish tribe and a young, vibrant community interested in the search for meaning, joy and the unique ways we can make ourselves and the world simply better.

Still, visiting the newly renovated, bright, and gorgeous center tells me more than any tagline. There is a mini-grand piano in the corner and live Jazz music plays nightly. The bar is open and the food is plentiful. It is social with substance. Classes are offered almost every night and the feel is warm, positive and inviting. I’m genuinely impressed and wish I was 20 years younger.

A nice crowd is gathering. I decide to sit in on a class in the basement given by Mrs. Ruthie Lynn, a therapist and popular teacher. In the class were casually dressed young men and women in their late 20s and early 30s. They are typical American young Jews and Birthright alumni. They were thoroughly engaged – a few of them were actually taking notes (not me – school ended a long time ago). Mrs. Lynn’s opening question (“I’m so busy, yet I feel I’m not accomplishing much. Does this resonate with anyone?”) intrigued me and the crowd in the room. A great discussion followed with much audience interaction. When the class ended, the crowd stayed and asked questions, focusing on a common challenge: In the modern world, we tend to feel good about ourselves if we are busy. “Yet is this bringing us happiness? How can we slow down a bit – perhaps do less, but enjoy more?” - good stuff.

When I want back upstairs music was playing, the bar was serving and people were mingling. I ended up schmoozing with some really impressive 20- and 30-somethings, hearing their stories. Successful people, smart people, friendly people, food, drinks and a healthy dose of Jewish wisdom - no wonder this place is so popular.  It occurs to me that the educational staff here may well describe the center as offering Jewish learning with some social events; however, the participants I met seemed to read that sentence from right to left, if you know what I mean.

In the end, though, who cares? If it works, it works. Perhaps I don’t need that CA group after all.

Doron Kornbluth is an author, international speaker, and licensed tour guide in Israel. He is a recovering Birthright cynic.