Much of the point of events geared at young American Jews– “young” loosely defined as 14 to menopause— is the production of Jewish babies. Such a goal, however worthy one considers Jewish continuity, can be a bit of a turn-off to those Jews wishing to learn about some aspect of Judaism (the Hebrew language, Jewish history, Israeli politics, etc.) but not, for whatever reasons, looking. Check out a 92nd Street Y or JCC catalog, and you will soon understand that “Jewish events” are “Jewish singles’ events,” not in the sense that people meet one another all over the place, but in a very specific, planned, manner. Jewish talks and classes are often geared towards dating and marriage, or, at the very least, some kind of wallowing in singledom.
Birthright Israel is no exception: as Oranim head honcho Momo Lifshitz makes abundantly clear, “It’s all about the love.” Not the love that spontaneously occurs between two people who just happen to have met on the subway, at a party, or even on Jdate or Birthright; not the forbidden love of someone of the “wrong” sex or ethnicity; but the highly-encouraged, stamped-kosher love of a boy and a girl who, after hearing Momo’s charismatic speech, seeking out some form of pseudoparental approval (many of our actual parents do, in fact, just want us to be happy), and duly hook up. After endless hours of travel, when the newly-arrived Oranim kids sat hungry and exhausted in an auditorium, Momo criticized a group of us for sitting “girl, girl, girl, girl,” rather than “girl, boy, girl, boy.” We were, in other words, instructed not to waste any time. Momo also let us know that any couple who marries after meeting on one of these trips will receive a free honeymoon in Israel. A friend of mine at NYU said she’d been discussing my trip with some people while I was away, and that they’d been joking that we get some kind of material incentives to marry or reproduce. She was surprised to learn that this is the truth.
After Momo’s initial words, what followed were, interspersed with an otherwise exciting (certainly for those of us long-obsessed with Zionism) and educational trip through Israel, various attempts at encouraging American Jewish undergrads to couple off in scenery familiar to them. At club night events in both Tel Aviv and Eilat, the Oranim groups interacted with few Israelis, had little sense of being in Israel as opposed to, say, Naperville, Illinois, wore North Face, striped-button-down-shirts, or stiletto-designer jeans combos seen everywhere in the US, and basically recreated American frat parties, except that whichever babies or STDs resulted would be Jewish babies or STDs, goddamn it!
The problem with Birthright (or at least the version I experienced) as it currently exists is the level of desperation. One can’t help but wonder, if Israel’s such a great country, then why do people have to pay us to go visit it? If Jewish women are so beautiful, as Momo keeps insisting, then why do Jewish men have to be told to notice this? As I see it, Israel’s existence is incredible, much of Israel itself is gorgeous, Jews are no better- or worse-looking than any other group of people on the planet, while Israelis are, arguably, better-looking than others, thanks to some combination of salad-consumption, sun, and time in the IDF. But constant, in-your-face nagging that you’d better like Israel, that you better not fall to the temptation of non-Jews (implication being, non-Jews are more attractive but it’s a sacrifice we must make…), is off-putting enough to make those who previously had no feelings either way run off to become (as did George Costanza, much to his mother’s chagrin) Latvian Orthodox.
So what’s the alternative?
Visiting Israel is an amazing experience if you know the history of the state and something about the Diaspora history preceding the state’s creation. Give the Birthright participants a sense of this history (something our tour guide, Yael, did an incredible job of), and do not specifically prevent hook-ups from occurring along the way, but do not repeat, again and again, that this is your reason for being in Israel. College and graduate school are not specifically about sex and marriage, but plenty of those result from both. So let Birthright be the same.
Either the goal of Jewish life is to allow and encourage those who want to take part to do so–this involves religious and cultural activities as well as defending Israel and the Jewish people–or it is to make more Jews, period. Some would say both. I would say it ought to be the former–I care very much that Jews are able to exist peacefully and freely as such both in Israel and in the Diaspora, and part of freedom is the freedom to decide how much you care if your descendants are Jews. Jews in America are not free if we feel compelled to produce Jewish offspring merely to stick it to the anti-Semites, then and now. And moreover, among the non-observant, the only way to ensure with any degree of certitude that you will have Jewish offspring who will, in turn, do the same, is to leave New Rochelle or Brooklyn or Skokie and–get this–move to Israel. I’ve made this point before, but here goes:
In America, there is no way, short of living in a closed, strictly orthodox community, to guarantee that your children will fall in love with only other Jews. Nor should there be–the beauty of America is that everyone, regardless of ethnicity, can be an American. So if you think it’s beautiful when an American man of Chinese ancestry marries a woman who recently immigrated from Ghana, you should find it equally charming when a man whose ancestors hail from the Pale of Settlement runs off with a Peruvian-American woman (or man, for that matter). If, on the other hand, you think it’s great that America does things this way, but you’d prefer to do things another way, if you believe that the Jewish people as a distinctive people must continue to exist, you have a choice: become ultra-orthodox and pray that your children don’t think to do otherwise, or move to Israel. Those are the options. Once we accept this, we can start having Jewish events that are not singles’ events, we can stop obsessing over why all those Jewish men on the Upper West Side seem so keen on Asian women, we can get rid of the neurotic cultural Judaism of Rhoda Morgenstern (obscure reference? think Woody Allen but female) and we can allow both religious and national forms of Judaism to flourish.