Friday, January 14, 2000

Giving U.S. Kids Their Birthright (Jewish Week)

The Jewish Week, January 14, 2000

As we rush head-first into a new century, it is difficult to imagine the world of a century ago, before automobiles, televisions and computer connections were commonplace. Bat Mitzvahs didn't exist back then either, until Mordecai Kaplan instituted the practice for his daughter Judith in the 1920s. Imagine Israel a century ago, without Tel Aviv, the kibbutz or Hebrew University -- without it being Israel.

So much has changed that it is hard to remember that each positive change was the result of Herculean effort and outstanding leadership. Looking back, these monumental culture changes seem to have occurred naturally, with an air of inevitability. But looking forward, such challenges seem far more daunting, if not impossible, and positive change is certainly not seen as inevitable."Changing the culture" has become a rallying cry in Jewish life, but it is turning out to be much more difficult to accomplish than changing the calendar. Jan. 1 will come and go, but we'll enter the new era with the same problems unsolved: stagnant synagogues, a growing chasm between American Jews and Israel and the prospective loss of the bulk of an entire under-40 generation to meaningful connection with the Jewish people.Grand visions are plentiful, but changing the culture implies finding the means, step by step, to turn a few of those visions into reality, knowing that the path won't be easy. Most dreams never get far beyond the drawing board, while others are nurtured over time and somehow are destined to stick.So now, given the unpredictable nature of bringing visions to fruition, what dream should we Jews be nurturing?

I've hitched my wagon to Birthright Israel, the ambitious project to send every Jewish teen and young adult age 15 to 26 to Israel. My community has been selected as one of 10 Birthright Israel North American pilot communities for next summer, as this visionary project expands to what many consider its most significant phase: the high school market. Up until now we've been hearing primarily about the 10-day college trips currently getting under way. But many experts feel that the full impact of the program will be felt only when the vast majority of high school-age Jewsknow that, as their "birthright," the Jewish world will send them to Israel on a summer teen tour of at least four weeks in duration.

Until now Stamford, Conn., like many other Jewish communities, has not done especially well in this regard. But early signs indicate that this summer the numbers of teens we send to Israel might quadruple last year's total, because we are presenting the kids with an offer they can't refuse: money and immortality.

A few days ago I visited a group of teens to promote a four-week tour that my synagogue is planning in conjunction with the Birthright grant. I asked how many had been to Israel. Very few raised their hands, and this from the kids who are actively involved in Jewish youth activities. Israel simply isn't on their radar screens. But when they heard that they could be pioneers, the chalutzim of a historic moment that could transform Jewish life, and that they would get a huge stipend toward that end, that turned them on.

I then asked them to imagine why the State of Israel would commit $70 million to a project like this when her security needs are still overwhelming and with a million Israelis live below the poverty line. The idea that Israel cares that much for us -- and that our predicament of losing Jews is deemed to be that urgent -- visibly moved them. A number of the teens were ready to sign up then and there. I left feeling great, sensing the cultural weathervane already beginning to shift in our favor.

I believe that Birthright has the potential to transform Israel-diaspora relations, but only if we allow it to. The problem is that the high school phase is going to be much more complicated than the college phase. Since the high school trips will be much longer than the college excursions, the stipend won't cover all expenses, so it's a tougher sell to begin with. We're also dealing with very diverse communities and local federations with diverging interests. And big money is involved. Things will get complicated.

Those who oppose Birthright cite bureaucratic complications or bemoan the fact that cheap Israel trips are no panacea for assimilation. Such people would likely have advised Ben-Gurion to cut his losses, hold off on statehood and send it to committee. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg says that a leader should aim to be at most 15 percent ahead of his people. I sense that in this case, the people, especially the students, are at least that much ahead of some of their leaders, and that the proponents of Birthright Israel are right in step with the times.

While there is indeed no panacea for assimilation, neither have there been many other grand ideas with such potential to bring together so many Jews for the common good and bring so many back to the Jewish fold. Already, the power of this vision has lit a spark in Stamford. Israel has invested wisely, demonstrating a deep concern for my teens and our future. We now know how much Israel cares. We'll soon find out how much the rest of us do.