Saturday, February 16, 2013

Birthright: Focus on OU Israel Free Spirit

     In a previous post, I discussed the importance of knowing the trip provider for those of you who may be going on a Taglit-Birthright trip to Israel. I focused on the Mayanot trip in that post. In this post, I'm just going to quickly discuss the OU Israel Free Spirit providers. As I mentioned, it is very important to understand where your trip providers are coming from. An orthodox organization may provide a great trip, but they also may try to convince participants to attend post-trip stints in yeshiva, or attend further programs either overtly or subtly pushing orthodoxy.
The OU's symbol, found on many kosher products.
     The OU trip is sponsored by, of course, the OU--the Orthodox Union. They're the ones who put the little OU sign on products that they certify as being "kosher" because those products meet a certain set criteria. The OU also provides Jewish services for college students and runs programs for high school students (they sponsor NCSY, the OU's youth movement.) They also publish a magazine, books, sponsor jobs and job training. They work within the orthodox community to help provide people with services that they may need. You can read more about the OU here. They also "sponsor programs and initiatives that inspire and empower Jewish adolescents"1 such as the Birthright Israel trip. They plainly states that "the mission of the Orthodox Union is to engage, strengthen, and lead the Orthodox Jewish Community, and inspire the greater Jewish community."2 Inspiring "the greater Jewish community" already screams "outreach!" to me, but I'm biased, so let's move on. 
     As expected, the OU trip's denomination is listed as orthodox. No surprise there. They are open to participants of varying backgrounds and the trip itself is supposed to emphasize the spiritual connection between the different facets of the Jewish people as a whole--the people of Israel, the land of Israel, contemporary Israel, and Jewish tradition all meshed together. The Birthright site states that

Israel Free Spirit trips are comprised of JSU & NCSY staff, College Jewish Education Professionals and Taglit-Birthright Israel alumni who share a passion for Israel and bring extensive background in informal Jewish education. In line with our mission of maximizing your trip we go beyond the required two staff per trip and usually add a third staff member who is a dynamic educational expert (a campus rabbi or similar) so you get more one on one attention.3
That sounds like a great deal if you want more one on one attention or a trip that will give you access to an orthodox rabbi or orthodox educational expert to give an orthodox point of view if needed. I think that this is great if a student is already orthodox. Providing an orthodox point of view for an orthodox clientele, or even a rabbi who can help students with preparations for Shabbat (the Sabbath) makes sense. I don't find these things to be at all problematic. What I find troubling, however, is who they are affiliated with.
     The OU boldly states to those interested in the trip they provide that "the OU “Israel Free Spirit” trip is a collaboration of NCSY, JSU (Jewish Student Union), Aish, Yachad/NJCD, Yeladim, JACS, MEOR, and many other allied agencies that have pooled their resources to provide you with the experience of a lifetime."4 This is where your eyes should widen if you're a parent of a non-orthodox student, or if you're a non-orthodox student going on Birthright and considering the OU Israel Free Spirit trip. Here's why:
  1. NCSY, while a youth group, also does extensive outreach to Jewish public school students. They are a kiruv(outreach) organization. An article about outreach in the OU's Jewish Action online magazine discussing kiruv programs states that "many of these programs serve as a magnet for Jews because they don’t take place in an obviously Jewish site. Thus, programs loosely wear an “Orthodox” or “outreach” label to avoid scaring away Jews who have little connection with traditional Judaism.....That, [Rabbi Steven Burg, international director of NCSY, the international teen organization sponsored by the Orthodox Union (OU) dedicated to connecting Jewish teens to Torah] says, is why NCSY has located some of its most successful outreach programs in places like public schools and cafes."5
  2. JSU (Jewish Student Union) is a "club" that is advertised to public schools. Check out their website here. They advertise themselves as an "awesome Jewish club, right in your school!"6 With promises of free kosher pizza and an advisor who will bring pizza, Judaism, and fun, who can resist? At the bottom of their website, they mention that they are sponsored by NCSY. They are an outreach organization.
  3. Aish. Aish is short for Aish HaTorah, a major outreach organization with yeshivas and learning programs specifically designed to transform non-orthodox Jews to fully-observant Jews.
  4. MEOR. MEOR is an Jewish organization that sets up on or near college campuses. They offer Jewish learning, programs, and holiday and Shabbat observance from an orthodox perspective, all created for college students. Their website states that "MEOR’s goal is to create the next generation of Jewish leaders by investing in students like you on leading U.S. campuses today." They also state that they "focus on in-depth Jewish learning for students who are seeking that opportunity as part of their college experience."7 They are an outreach organization. Read more here
These four organizations are kiruv organizations. While the OU Israel Free Spirit trip isn't going to make anyone orthodox, there is no guarantee that the trip providers and additional staff provided don't have ulterior motives. There is no guarantee that post-trip extensions or follow-up won't include subtle or not-so-subtle pushes towards orthodoxy. Be aware of who your trip providers are, and which organizations sponsor them. Future articles on this topic will cover other orthodox Birthright trip providers. I also plan to include more in-depth discussion of the groups mentioned in this post.

1. accessed 2/16/2013 at 1:32pm.

2. ibid.
3. accessed on 2/16/2013 at 1:48pm.
4. ibid 
5. Lipman, Steve. "The New Face of Jewish Outreach." accessed 2/16/2013 at 2:18pm.
6. accessed on 2/16/2013 at 2:24pm.
7. accessed on 2/16/2013 at 2:29pm.


  1. Mayanot is a big provider and offers a free ten day stay in the Mayanot yeshiva at the end.

  2. Thank you, Matthew and Yehuda, for commenting.
    Matthew, I hope you'll scroll down and read my post on the Mayanot trip as well.
    Yehuda, I completely agree with you. MEOR uses very deceptive tactics in order to get students involved in their programs. I do plan on writing a post about them, as I think people need to know more about this organization.
    I hope that both of you will continue to read this blog and comment. Thank you.

  3. Thank you for this post. As a secular Jew, I was looking for an Orthodox-sponsored program so I could learn more about serious Judaism. Still weighing the benefits, but I'll be going with either Mayanot or Free Spirit.

    1. Thank you for YOUR post. I am in a similar position. I am a secular Jew (raised conservative) and a student of philosophy. I would love a rabbi on the trip! I don't understand why the presence of a more orthodox point of view is problematic. Especially when argumentation is one of our oldest cultural practices. You don't learn anything surrounded by people who agree with you.
      Shady or not, many of these outreach organizations have allowed secular Jews to participate in social conventions and still retain some Jewish identity. And it's not as if they're explicitly proselytizing.

  4. One of the difficulties here is that "Orthodox" Jews do not consider themselves outside the mainstream. They do not feel it nesseccary to "warn" parents about anything, because the do not consider their actions unwholesome or sleezy. These are things that are very subjective. The is no intelligent person that can attend even 5min of a MEOR seminar and think that they are being decived.


Your respectful comments are welcome.