Friday, September 17, 1999

Limit The Freebies To Jewish State

(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week)

Summer is the main season for boondoggling — taking advantage of free or heavily subsidized trips to Israel — an expensive pastime that has the sole virtue of being for ordinary folks and not just the rich people. Although it is practiced throughout the year, boondoggling reaches its peak in July and August when thousands of diaspora Jews trek on expense-paid hegiras to the Holy Land. Federations, foundations, the Jewish Agency and other repositories of philanthropic funds that are intended for the betterment of Jewish life foot the bill.

Betterment there is aplenty, as airlines, hotels, restaurants and all who live off the tourist trade in Israel reap economic advantage. The prime beneficiaries are educators, community workers, students and whoever else manages, with or without protektzia, to connect with any of the dozens of organizations that offer free trips as they exult in self-delusory ecstasy that a stay in Israel brings about extraordinary transformational results.

This has not been an especially busy year for the boondoggle business, as 1999 is wedged between Israel’s 50th anniversary and the millennium. Recently, though, there was an especially lamentable example of the tendency to spend limited Jewish communal money on these extravaganzas. More than 350 Jewish educators from around the world came to Israel for two weeks as the guests of the Jewish Agency. They were wined and dined; the culminating event was an expensive catered affair at the magnificent Haas Promenade in East Jerusalem that was followed by a fireworks display.

It may be that the Israeli army had spare cherry bombs that it wanted to dispose of. More likely — and I am told by educators that this was the case — the Jewish Agency had unspent money and could not think of any better way to use the funds at hand.

I am not against going to Israel. We all should go, as often as we can, to experience the glory of our heritage and, less important, to help the country’s economy along the way. I also accept, to a degree, the premise of Birthright Israel, that a community-financed trip to Israel may make a difference in the lives of marginally committed teenagers.

What I object to is the lavish expenditures to bring Americans and other foreigners wholesale to Israel and the comparable use of Israeli funds to send Israelis abroad on what usually amounts to shopping and pleasure junkets. The programs that involve educators, community workers, etc. are an egregious example of the broader tendency that encompasses, as just one more illustration, the hundreds of academics who are invited, all-expenses paid, to Israeli conferences on arcane subjects.

What I also object to is the pollyannaish fantasy that sending principals, teachers and others will result in their being better at what they are paid to do. While there is zero evidence that these trips improve job performance or lead to other communal gains, they are failsafe arrangements. The trip to Israel alone is proof of success. Nothing more is required, although it is customary to ask the participants to complete a questionnaire that asks about their degree of satisfaction. It is customary as well for the junketeers to respond that it was a wonderful and meaningful experience and ought to be repeated.

Because it is failsafe, people in the philanthropy business constantly dream up new variations on the theme. Leadership training has become popular. Jewish kids of college age are selected, and while few have demonstrated anything that can be called leadership potential, it is expected that they will emerge from 10 days or two weeks in Israel as nascent Jewish leaders.

All that is being proved is that tens of millions of dollars of Jewish philanthropy can add up to lots of zeros.

These activities limit what foundations and federations can do to advance Jewish life. People involved in day schools claim that for all of the talk of additional philanthropic support, the situation is no better than it used to be and it may be worse. The funders insist that they are doing more. Presumably, both positions cannot be right. Or can they? The explanation lies in the preference of funders for tangential projects, rather than direct support to the schools. Trips to Israel are one manifestation of the trend. There are also family education, workshops and conferences, all of which allow philanthropic givers to believe that they are aiding Jewish education when, in fact, the schools are not being helped.

Day schools are badly underfunded, even with parents being pressured to pay rapidly rising tuition charges. It is difficult to determine the extent to which the high cost of day school education is a disincentive for marginally religious parents. It is certain that inadequate facilities, limited academic programs and a slew of other shortcomings are a disincentive in many cases. American Jewry is not willing to make the investment needed to make day schools attractive alternatives to families that are Jews at risk.

Instead of sending principals to Israel, the money should be utilized to directly assist struggling day schools. This will make them better institutions of Jewish learning. In the process, principals will be capable of doing a better job.