Religion & Beliefs

Birthright Revisited

I hope in this series to describe the Birthright experience from the side of a counselor, an insider, and as a critical outsider. Partially because of my belief in this institution, partially from my love of all its participants, and partially because what makes us Jews if not for the questions we ask? Read More

By / October 26, 2011
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Birthright, that entrenched wave of Jewish identity, receives almost nothing but unconditional positive regard. Even the Nation’s recent reportorial article draws close to true criticism, but stays its hand so as not awaken the sleeping beast. And at first glance, why argue? The results speak for themselves: life-altering experiences, lower assimilation rates, greater Jewish identification, higher support for the state of Israel, an unprecedented boost in tourism, so why even begin to look at how this machine, this bureaucracy works? Should we not stand proud of this miraculous movement and give what we can to its causes?

One story, of many I could choose from, highlights the need for a more complex understanding of this phenomenon. As a counselor, part of my personal responsibility, besides metaphorically taking the pulse of the group, was to get to know each one of the 48 participants. One day, while discussing a participant’s, brave, heroic life story we spoke about her ambivalence towards the trip. We spoke about our group’s earlier discussion of Jewish values. In that discussion many people argued for ranking marrying a Jew amongst their top five important Jewish values to which this kind soul now responded, “Why should I feel guilty that I love my non-Jewish boyfriend? Also, on a different note,” she added, “I feel inadequately equipped to discuss with my Arab roommate the political situation in Israel, a situation that must contain more complexity than the simple narrative preached on this trip,” I knew not how to justify the pain the trip caused her, or how to explain why we as an organization present a simplified version of the political situation.

I hope in this series to describe the Birthright experience from the side of a counselor, an insider, and as a critical outsider. Partially because of my belief in this institution, partially from my love of all its participants, and partially because what makes us Jews if not for the questions we ask?

First, some background. I never attended Birthright as a participant, only as a counselor, twice. This time around, I received the call to come up from the bullpen three days before departure. The first organization I went through, Amazing Israel, described itself as egalitarian, with little agenda past the ambiguous goal of “allowing the participants to experience Israel.” I found Mayanot, my new organization, harder to pin down. One of the heads of the program called me for a quick debriefing and interview. She clung closely to my religious history because as she told me, “Often, with people who were once more religious, they feel resentment towards religion that does not fit well with our organization.” I assuaged her of her doubts, but my own propaganda radar started to blip with low sounds of worry. I understood that as a Chabad (a sect of Chassidut) organization, a rabbi, a kind, intelligent 25 year old person, would guide our group, but from their website I could not tell what distinguished this organization from others beside their evasive, trite explanation of what makes Mayanot unique, an explanation that provides little explicit explanation of their Chabad background, nor of their agendas.

On the trip I quickly learned that besides this complex agenda of offering the experience the “real” Israel, Mayanot pushes a not-so subtle aspect of what we Orthodox Jews refer to as Kiruv: the bringing closer of lost Jewish souls back to the fold. I put this fact in a folder in my mind while I equivocated whether to attend the trip or not for about four hours, but finally, on Sunday August 7th I found myself navigating the maze of Delta’s terminal searching for my group.

Birthright groups at airports are easy to spot: look for a gaggle of 20-somethings, dressed ready to impress, many of them standing aloof trying to look cool, but actually looking like deer in headlights. Most of them attend this trip without friends, most come to Israel for the first time, and most simply haven’t flown for more than 11 hours on a plane. Fear, uncertainty, and excitement permeate throughout the group as does that pervasive, more powerful, hmmm, who-here-looks-hot face.

Though each group I served differed greatly in many aspects, for the sake of simple reporting I will conflate the two on many matters. Besides the cocktail of nerves and excitement, the most striking aspect of this pre-departure party lies in the creation of a bartering marketplace full of the latest prescriptions drugs: Xanax for valium, klonopin for ambien with the weaker Tylenol PM and benadryl lying on the edges of the market, and the occasional trading of the more potent vicodin and oxycodeine. Few actually try to bring marijuana across international waters, though many try to procure Hashish while in Israel. I can’t imagine I can add to the conversation of American’s dependency on drugs for everything, but it’s disconcerting to think how much of our definition of fun relentlessly entails drugs, sex, and alcohol. We value depth, meaning, and intimate conversation, but that rarely falls within the purview of fun.

Each group also resorts to high school behavior, perhaps as a regressive self-defense mechanism, or perhaps we never truly outgrow these personalities. Here you see adults, hard working, masters-receiving, doctorate-seeking, independent business owners, lawyers, recent college graduates walking around uncertain of their place and themselves. The cool girls collect themselves in a corner scoping out the fresh meat, both to make out with and to poke fun at, the shy girls sit in the corner, nervously holding on to their passports, or listening to their iPods full of angst music worrying again about issues of acceptance, issues they thought at least lay dormant since those awkward days of youth. The guys walk around shouting, flirting, wearing their fake confidence with obvious discomfort, while those less, “cool” wonder how they’ve ended up in a place where again it matters not what you think, but how you look, not how you necessarily act, but how you flirt.

From my personal experience, the number one expectation of birthrighters is of a free trip in a beautiful country with a group of attractive Americans and Israeli soldiers all ready to flirt and sleep together. Though not a new phenomenon, I find it interesting that sex lends meaning to most events. We spend so much of our time thinking of her face, his body, her breasts, his abs, and who we could sleep with in a manner incommensurate to how much sex actually occurs. Birthright just heightens this mode of thinking, purposefully, in part to foster that needed sense of kinship, because even without actual sex the requisite discussions about sex provide a sense intimacy. Not to say that some Birthright trips do not entail sex as a nightly component, but for the amount of thought we give to it one would imagine Birthright as one big orgy, which obviously is not true, and also misses the point.

On the trip sex serves not only as simple fun, but as a means towards connection, towards feeling less alone amongst the foreignness. The big lie about sex on birthright, besides its prevalence, lies in our reductive thoughts towards its importance, because it never ends at sex. None of the participants I’ve had the privilege to know actually end up, in hindsight, thinking that the sexual aspect defined their trip. They always transcend this expected normal desire. Birthright plunges each participant into a foreign situation, foreign land, and foreign discussion, and while some of the participants respond with sexual seeking all the participants respond with bravery, and genuine excitement, that to a cynical Jew like me refreshes my tired soul.

For example, After finding my group we ran an icebreaker. People, strangers to each other, open up immediately as if the expectation of cohesiveness creates the cohesion itself. After ten days tears flow from the participants at the time of separation as if they are losing limbs, or family members. Though Birthright creates a manipulative context that evokes these feelings, sometimes it’s enough to admire these emotions regardless of the methods of their creation.

But I cannot neglect the less ambivalent, more obviously positive aspects and beautiful aspects of the trip. I understand, the trip requires no obvious monetary sacrifice, and who would say no to a free vacation with good looking people your age, but when I asked each participant about their excitement to go to Israel each person provided an honest, hopeful answer that ranged from the mundane to the metaphysical; each of their faces alights with the glow of true searchers. I cannot remember the last time I felt that feeling, or felt it in a group of other Jews.

For a second, then, let’s forget all the questionable politics that demand discussion, forget the possible practices of the trip that border on indoctrination, and forget the nature of the trip as simplistic, sometimes infantilizing, and morally reductive, because we love to focus on the insidious actions of some big bureaucracy to the neglect of the positive. Many of the organizations under the umbrella of birthright sport acceptance rates lower than the finest Ivy League colleges. Many of the participants expressed their frustration with earlier rejections and their joy over their current acceptance. Each of the participant evinced deep hopes for connection: to other Jews, to the inner unexplored spirituality, and to a heritage lost through assimilation and acculturation.

However, we must realize that Birthright as a movement will only get stronger as time passes. We cannot deny its strength, but we can begin to deconstruct its methods in hopes of creating a more complex, more demanding, more eye opening trip. To do that though, we need to run through the trip not with the often uncritical eyes of participants, nor the invested eyes of organizational workers, buts through the lens of someone who cares about the future of Jewish Identity and realizes that Birthright contains some inherent, fundamental issues. So let the discourse begin.

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