Friday, November 06, 2009

Right About Birthright

Birthright Israel was born a decade ago as an act of near desperation. Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman recognized that the bad statistics and news about American Jewish identity and commitment were real and that all the expensive press agentry and programming of our establishment would bring scant improvement. They grasped at the straw of a free brief trip to Israel not because they thought that it would be a miracle worker but because they believed that it had the prospect to do some good and there was no equally good idea on the horizon. They found partners in the Israel government and the Jewish Agency which feared that Judaic abandonment by American Jews would be severely detrimental to the Jewish State.

When asked at the time by the American Jewish Congress to assess Birthright’s prospects, I wrote an article for its monthly magazine suggesting that if the initiative was not oversold, it likely would bring about meaningful benefits.

Ten years later, it is clear that Birthright was a good idea whose time had come. It is, in the term used by the people at Brandeis who have just issued a major report, not a “panacea.” The crisis of identity among American young Jews remains real and in many respects the situation is worse than it was in 1999. Our losses continue and ultimately this will be recognized, yet it is also the case that Birthright has in a meaningful way connected many young Jews with vital elements of their heritage.

The Birthright research was conducted at Brandeis’ Cohen Center which has emerged as the premier institute for the study of American Jewish demography. In earlier studies, Cohen had given Birthright high marks and this was challenged on several grounds, mainly whether the experience was translated into meaningful attitudinal and behavioral change. The new report is exquisite as it seeks to steer readers through technical exercises. This is a painstaking and honest effort to study a complex subject and the authors of the report carefully detail the limitations of the research conducted so far on Birthright.

The report was discussed at length last week in Gary Rosenblatt’s excellent article and there is no need to retrace the story, except to take mild issue with the heading, “Birthright Study Offers Mixed Bag of Results.” The findings are, in the aggregate, positive.

Not that they cannot be questioned. For all of the care taken by Len Saxe and his brilliant team to get it right, Jewish demography remains imprecise, witness the constant and substantial disagreements over how many American Jews there are, as well as what they believe and how they behave. Witness, as well, the sharp debate over intermarriage. If I can borrow from Roger Maris breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record, perhaps an asterisk should be appended to our quantitative studies declaring that this is what we come up with the methodology that has been employed.

Our population studies rely on what is referred to as weighting, meaning that the responses given by participants in the research are not treated equally, with some being given more weight and some less. This process inevitably relies heavily on what the researchers already believe to be the case, so that to an extent what the new research finds is the confirmation of assumptions that are being made, as well as previous research.

What has received the greatest attention, including the Wall Street Journal which messed up regarding the Orthodox, is the statistic that Birthrighters are significantly more likely to marry Jews than young adults of similar background in the control group who applied for the trip but were not selected. This finding is tentative because the early Birthright cohorts were more Jewishly involved than the more recent groups and also because relatively few in the control group have married. More will be learned about marital choice and other behaviors down the road as the plan is to continue to track the earlier groups and to engage in additional research on the later cohorts.

Although the intermarriage finding is presented as a positive, as it should be, curiously, in other research the Brandeis folks are suggesting that marrying out does not result in a reduced commitment to Israel, nor is it a Jewish demographic time bomb.

Whatever the impact of Birthright on intermarriage, intermarriage is having, perhaps inevitably, a large impact on Birthright. As has been reported, the program is now making a deliberate effort to attract the offspring of intermarried parents. Beyond this, except for the Orthodox, American Jewry has been enormously affected by assimilatory forces, the decisive trend being away from religious involvement toward secular activities and attitudes. Birthright is not exempt. There are indications that unlike the early years, the ten-day program is veering away from activities that focus significantly on religious dimensions toward those that are more secular and that as a consequence of this change, a number of trip providers are being pushed out. The point was made to me during the summer while I was in Israel by the head of an organization that for more than two decades has done effective outreach.

The Brandeis report acknowledges that “future analyses of subsequent cohorts, which were larger and had a higher proportion of applicants with intermarried parents, will allow for a more robust analysis of this phenomenon.” The authors suggest, however, that because recent cohorts “included larger proportions of less engaged participants than those examined in the present study, it is possible that future research will show an even larger impact.” This may turn out to be wishful thinking.

Much will depend on the effectiveness of follow-up programming for Birthright participants, a subject not covered in the report. For now, there is much to celebrate in Birthright’s achievements.