If you've heard of the Taglit-Birthright Israel program (http://www.birthrightisrael.com/), skip the introductory paragraph.
From the Birthright web site:
"Taglit-Birthright Israel provides the gift of first time, peer group, educational trips to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26 in order to strengthen participants' personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people."
Sounds awesome, right? If you're young (aged 18-26) and Jewish and you have yet to go on some Jewish community-sponsored trip to Eretz Yisrael, Birthright is for you. Several of my former religious school students have opted out of their synagogue's regular Israel program in order to save money for college; then they'll go on a FREE Birthright trip after graduation. Because Birthright is free. It's paid for. Someone else is sending you to Israel because, well, it's your birthright to go.
Putting aside the arguments about the various purposes of such a trip -- that it's designed to "indoctrinate" Diaspora Jewish youth so they'll grow up to love Israel with their hearts (and support Israel with their money) -- and just consider that doing something like this for your community's young people is pretty darned cool. That a community loves its children enough to create experiences for them that will do more to formulate their Jewish identity than simple book-learning and discussion ever can, is evidence of a community that loves and cherishes its young people.
But for older Jewish adults whose desire to understand Israel experientially is curtailed by lack of resources, there is -- wait for it -- nothing.
That's right. If you're a forty-something North American Jew who has read about Israel, studied it, attended lectures and maybe even tried to hold your own in arguments about it (and failed or succeeded to varying degrees), and you finally feel ready to take the next step and actually travel to Israel -- which all Jews are told they really need to do at some point -- there is nothing out there that even remotely resembles Birthright.
Why? The only answer I can come up with is that, by the time you're forty-something, you're expected to be more than able to afford the cost All By Yourself.
And if you can't, it's your own fault. You played against type, somehow, by choosing work that pays peanuts; or worse, by choosing work in a field where all the jobs have been sent overseas. You can barely afford synagogue dues, and you want a trip to Israel? What on earth would you be able to do for us when you came back?
Look at the kids, the implicit message says -- at least they have the chance to develop their love for Israel and Jewish life early enough that they can still make sensible choices about their lives, choices that will put them in a better position to become the machers they're supposed to be when they grow up. This isn't prejudicial, say the millions of judgmental, little Jewish voices in my head, it's just a matter of probability and statistics, simple math. We need to grow Jews wiho will support Israel, and who will support Jewish causes at home with the money they're supposed to earn from the high-payng professions they're supposed to enter. We like our chances with younger folks better than we like our chances with someone entering mid-life. Sorry.
The only problem with this very traditional line of reasoning is that:
a. More and more Jews are coming into Jewish communal life at a later age, either through reawakening of a Jewish identity left over from childhood, or as adult converts to the faith. And they're not all bringing white-collar salaries or lives with them.
b. More and more "white collar" professionals, Jewish and otherwise, are finding that their careers are nearly as vulnerable as those who are in the lower-paying fields of retail and the service industries.
c. The Jewish community is undergoing a very noticeable evolution as more of us fall into financial circumstances that prevent us from accessing various aspects of traditional Jewish communal life -- synagogue and JCC membership; Jewish fraternal organizations and Federation involvement -- and participation in these aspects of Jewish communal life is shrinking because fewer North American Jews can afford the price of admission.
This isn't just about Birthright. It's about nearly every aspect of traditional Jewish communal life in North America.
Some organizations are making the effort to make the doorway in more accessible; wealthier members are being asked -- in some cases, rather pointedly -- to step up and donate more to help subsidize the costs for members who cannot afford to pay full pop. Most synagogues offer some kind of "sliding scale" membership, as do many workshops and other special events. (Asking for "sliding scale" or "scholarship" possibilities remains deeply embarrassing and difficult for those who need it, and I'm not sure we will ever erase the stigma of that shame in our capitalist, success-driven society.)
But the fact is that, unless you've lived The Expected Life, finding the doorway into Jewish communal life can be difficult and daunting.
Even with all the things I've managed to do since making my "re-entry" into Jewish life as an adult, I still have trouble finding the doorway myself at times. Just as it's been hard for me to feel at ease in rooms filled with people who are used to opening the checkbook at every opportunity, who arrive at these events in luxury cars and live in beautifully appointed homes in the West Hills, it has been difficult for me to figure out exactly where I belong in the Jewish community.
This used to be my father's baggage. When I was a kid and my sister and I wanted our family to join a temple, or to send us to Hebrew school, the money simply wasn't there. A few synagogues, including the temple we wanted to join, offered "sliding scale", but the process of applying for it was so shameful and onerous that my father decided he'd rather skip Jewish communal life altogether than go through the humiliation of explaining why he earned so much less than his Jewish peers.
To be fair, he did return to communal Jewish life in his final years, and was able, at the end, to enjoy a sense of belonging in a synagogue community. (But as long as we're being honest here, he was also a sixty-year-old guy when he could afford full synagogue dues, so perhaps he didn't have to carry the same baggage around anymore.)
Somewhere along the way, between the time I discovered Jewish communal life for myself and now, something happened so that this became my baggage too. Synagogue dues got more expensive just as my hours at work began to go down and my partner lost her full-time teaching job. More events at my synagogue charged admission of some kind and we could afford to go to fewer and fewer of them, so we stayed home and felt ourselves grow farther removed from a sense of Jewish community. Our inability to have children (first medically and then financially) only drove that point home harder and more painfully; in the Jewish community it remains All About The Children. And today, I feel an anger rising in me that I have tried very hard not to feel, an anger about wanting to belong and no longer knowing exactly how. Where is MY birthright? the mini-me howls inside my heart. What is my place here? Where is my doorway in? How will I know when I find it? And I'm not just talking about a free trip to Israel, I'm talking about the myriad of ways in which working-class and/or poor Jews are, through the fault of no one and everyone, made to feel excluded and invisible.
What really needs to happen is that the entire Jewish community -- including religious Jews of every stream of thought, and those who identify as secular or "cultural" Jews -- needs to come together and have a serious reality check about the state of the world we live in and how the new fiscal reality is changing the face of Jewish life in North America.
Fewer families will send their kids to Jewish day schools. There will be fewer full-time jobs for Jewish educators, cantors and rabbis. There may come a time when we see an UN-professionalization of Jewish communal work, when families and friends take their Jewish lives into their own hands and create them anew on a much smaller -- and more sustainable -- level. My partner and I already do this periodically by having friends over for Shabbat dinners on the lawn ("the largest room in our house," we tell people -- and we're not joking). Groups of young adults are meeting in homes and creating their own Shabbat services and potluck dinners, their own sense of community, independent of the synagogue or JCC. And while this shrinking and evolution may pose a problem for some Jews who live very far away from the geographic "centers" of Jewish life, it will also provide an opportunity for many more Jews to create new understandings of community (and perhaps even of chosen family). As more and more Jewish adults are unable to afford the cost of travel to Israel, some may shrug their shoulders, give up, and set about creating a Jewish identity that does not depend so much on a personal connection to Eretz Yisrael; they may decide that it's much more sensible, and important, to nurture Jewish life in the place where one is, and adapt their celebrations -- and even their prayers -- accordingly.
As the new fiscal and social realities set in -- and I believe we will see a new "normal" as a result of the recent global financial upheavals -- individuals who desire to create an authentic Jewish life for themselves and their loved ones will adapt, and adjust. Are Jewish institutions, who by their very nature have become huge and almost immovable, similarly capable of making the adjustment? If not, they may become increasingly irrelevant to the majority of North American Jewry.