This summer, our daughter (with her cousin) is very likely going to Israel on a Birthright Israel trip. In general, I think this is a good thing. Birthright Israel, in the large, is a good group. Erin never had the extensive Jewish summer camp experience that I did, and she had bad experiences with the plastic people sometimes found in Reform congregations.
The trip she is going on is coordinated by Israel Free Spirit. I’ve looked through their pages and they seem a reasonable group. They appear to be OU (Orthodox Union) sponsored. IFS does their trips in conjunction with a number of partners. In particular, Erin’s trip would be done in conjunction with the Southern California Jewish Awareness Movement (JAM). JAM is active on a number of Southern California campuses, including UCSB where her cousin is a sophomore.
Here’s our concern: JAM is an off-shoot of Aish Ha-Torah, and IFS is an OU organization. We’re Reform. These are on almost different ends of the practice and belief spectrum (although there are further outliers on both ends). We’ve discussed this with our rabbi, and she’s pushed for a Kesher Birthright trip, which is under the auspices of the Reform movement. Erin wants no part of that; she wants to do the trip with her cousin. As I noted earlier, Erin has had bad experiences with the larger Reform congregations, mostly resulting from the nature of the teens that tend to be present in such congregations (i.e., teens more concerned with status and where you go to school than actual learning).
I’m troubled about the trip for two reasons, neither of which are insurmountable and both of which are probably more on me and my psyche than anything else.
The first is that I’m worried about any hidden agendas by the coordinating groups (this has likely been magnified due to the concerns about non-Kesher trips from our Rabbi). Part of this is due to the fact that when searching on the rabbi organizing the trip (Rabbi Zaret), this article came up.* I’m very sensitive to the groups that often have hidden agendas or exert pressure on college students (I have strong memories of this happening on campus back when I was at UCLA in the late 1970s). Last night I had a discussion with Rabbi Zaret, who was very nice and gracious on the phone. He indicated that their group was bound by the strictures of Birthright, which dictates a pretty fixed agenda and tour program. He indicated that the groups that go under JAM-auspices are primarily secular and that the program they run is primarily secular. He indicated there is nothing particularly religious on their Birthright trips. They do make some slight changes, such as visiting an Israeli Olympic Museum, because Rabbi Zaret knows the widow of one of the people killed in the 1972 Olympic Village shootings. He was going to send me some material on the program they do, and I’m going to see if I can talk to some of the students who have done their program in previous years to see if there was any undue pressure. He also indicated that JAM does a separate 3-week trip that is more religious and involves more learning, but the Birthright trip is not that trip. I felt reasonably reassured regarding this concern after talking to Rabbi Zaret, although I’d still like to talk to some people who participated in previous years as confirmation.
[*: I’ll note that, other than that one article, I have seen nothing negative about the organization, so it is likely an outlier.]
[ETA #1: This Yelp writeup is interesting, and also helps allay fears — although I’m curious about the mentioned evening discussions. I also found this 8 tips post interesting. There is also this page with responses from people who went on JAM’s 3-week program, but I’m guessing the 10 day program is less intense.]
[ETA #2: My wife spoke with a rabbi at our congregation today at a Torah study; the rabbi indicated that going with a modern Orthodox group actually might be good for Erin, so I’m feeling a little better on this aspect.]
The second thing bothering me (and in some sense, it is bothering me more) is the question of why am I bothered at all. After all, if you know me and my history with both the Soc.Culture.Jewish FAQ and the Liberal Judaism Mailing List you know that I believe in respecting all Jewish movements.* I’ve never been one to beat up on Orthodoxy. I have quite a few Orthodox friends with whom I have great discussions — we each respect each other and can discuss religion without OCR arguments**. I have no problem with Orthodox beliefs as long as practice is consistent with those beliefs; I believe Judaism supports the different streams. I regularly follow Orthodox discussions (including modern Orthodox folks such as Mayim Bialik) and am on a number of Orthodox mailing lists. Further, both OU and Aish HaTorah are on the modern Orthodox side of the spectrum, not that Charedi side. This is a much more reasonable version of Orthodoxy than the stereotypical image often projected. Going even further, it is very unlikely that my daughter, who has never been that religious and has been relatively skeptical towards religion, would be swayed over to Orthodoxy in a 10-day trip. She might be swayed into some increased practice, increased belief, or increased Jewish connection (which wouldn’t be a bad thing), but moving to a true Orthodox position (i.e., that the Torah is 100% God-given and we follow every word simply because it is God-given) takes more than a simple trip. Going even even further, even if she went Orthodox, at least we would know she is going out with Jewish boys :-).
[*: In fact, I read over this post many times just to make sure I wasn’t creating an implied dig at my Orthodox co-religionists.]
[**: “OCR arguments” refers to the name-calling between Jewish movements that discussions often devolved to in the days of soc.culture.jewish on USENET]
Still… still… it bothers me, and I’m bothered for being bothered. It’s making me question my stated tolerance and acceptance — why is it OK for someone else but not for my daughter? I guess this is the parental aspect coming in: you want to protect your children, but here the question is really: protecting from what? Why do I believe that secular program run by a modern Orthodox organization is something from which protection is required? As I said above, this is not a problem with the program, but with my psyche.
I decided to write this up because writing things out often helps me sort through the issues. We’re going to be talking some more with the Reform rabbi that expressed concern, plus I plan to talk to some additional Rabbinic friends to see if I can put my mind at ease. I’d welcome your thoughts as well — especially if you have experience with Birthright, Birthright trips, or any of the organizations involved with this trip.