Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Outreach to the Birthright Alums

A few days ago, Aug. 26, 2009, the Forward ran this article:

Largest Outreach Effort for Alums Of Birthright Raises Concerns

What’s the “concern?” The charge is that the largest, most well-funded organizer of follow-up programs for Birthright alumni, the Jewish Enrichment Center, been given a virtual monopoly on reaching out to the tens of thousands of Birthright alumni who return to the New York Tri-State area and that they are Orthodox.

As I began reading I found nothing to be so upset about. The program is non-denominational, has a terrific sounding offering, and environment for young people to hang out, learn and get to know other young Jews. They have Hebrew classes, challah baking, Friday night dinners and a training program for those who didn’t have a bar or bat mitzvah. As a mom of a Birthright alum it all sounded good to me. In fact I’ve been hoping and asking for some meaningful followup for my San Francisco bay area alum daughter.

I don’t care that the Orthodox rabbi isn’t into labels; personally I have frum friends and I get tired of hearing them disparaged. The accusation that the program is “slanted towards religious observance” sounded like it is more of a problem for my generation than my daughter’s. I have no objection to traditional Torah study as long as it’s accepting and embracing. I am onboard for kosher snacks, which I’m assuming they serve.

But then the program moved from religion, where they appear to be low key and open, to politics, where there is a clear conservative agenda. OK, they lost me. And truthfully, they’d lose my daughter.

What makes me sad is that it always seems like the money for extensive programming and an expensive building/meeting place only goes to orthodox endeavors. The liberal areas of the community can’t see their way clear to spend this money. So while I agree with the concerns expressed by Rabbi Yoffie of the Union for Reform Judaism (see the article), what I see is that no one is willing to fund a program of Reform (or Reconstructionist or Renewal or Conservative) Jewish outreach on this scale.

We in Outreach to Interfaith readily acknowledge the powerful message and consistent openness of Chabad. The frequent statement is, “we need to become a liberal version of Chabad.” What does that mean? First of all it means feeling confident of who we are, knowing our own boundaries. From a secure core it is a lot easier to open your arms to others. I hope that a clear and consistent mission statement will help funders see their way through to funding a liberal program of outreach. To you my fellow professionals, I believe the better we coordinate with each other and support each other (as the Chabad couples do) the stronger we will become.

But let me issue a cautionary note to the Jewish Enrichment Center, please ask yourself:
Will a conservative speaker (Grace-Marie Turner) who is opposed to public funding for abortions and is anti-President Obama catch the interest of this group of young Jews? If you think she will, you don’t know your audience. I suggest you check out the YouTube video, Sarah Silverman and the Great Schlep – that’s where the young Jews are.