|The OU's symbol, found on many kosher products.|
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.3That 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:
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
1. http://www.ou.org/about_us/#.UR_NMPKQ1hp accessed 2/16/2013 at 1:32pm.
3. http://www.birthrightisrael.com/VisitingIsrael/Pages/OU-Israel-Free-Spirit.aspx accessed on 2/16/2013 at 1:48pm.
5. Lipman, Steve. "The New Face of Jewish Outreach." http://www.ou.org/index.php/jewish_action/article/64253/ accessed 2/16/2013 at 2:18pm.
6. http://dojsu.com/ accessed on 2/16/2013 at 2:24pm.
7. http://www.meor.org/homepage-features/for-students accessed on 2/16/2013 at 2:29pm.