Sunday, February 10, 2013

Birthright Israel: Focus on Mayanot

     Chances are that if you're a Jewish college student, or if you're the parent of a Jewish college student, or even if you've been a college student yourself in the past thirteen years, you've heard of Taglit Birthright, a program run by a not-for-profit organization that sponsors free ten-day trips to Israel for the post-high school (18-26 years old) set. Read more at their official site or on wikipedia. Under the Birthright umbrella, students have the opportunity to choose the trip of their choice, each run by different trip providers. This is where it gets tricky. There are about fifteen trip providers, ranging from orthodox to non-denominational. Birthright offers some tips on how to choose your trip provider, however, despite the denominations listed near the trip description, it's still easy to get them confused. Here's why: the trips listed as orthodox in denomination don't appear to be geared towards orthodox college students. They welcome all types of Jews and from what I understand, the programs are generally well-run, informative, and a lot of fun. There may be subtle differences in each orthodox group's particular ideology (some trips are run by Chabad, others by OU, others by Ezra, etc.) but there seems to be a general understanding that most students going on these trips are probably not orthodox and so the trips are run more liberally than one might expect.  Orthodox trip providers have put a lot of effort into not making their program descriptions appear to be orthodox in any way. However, it is not the initial Birthright trip that poses a potential outreach/kiruv issue, but the follow-up after the trip and possible pressure to attend yeshiva programs affiliated with the group's particular brand of orthodoxy that could be problematic. Understanding that this post could be endless, let's focus on one program for now. I've chosen to focus on Mayanot because it is the first orthodox organization listed on Birthright's list.1

     Mayanot, the Birthright program run by Chabad, mentions partying, learning about contemporary issues, exciting tourist attractions, partying, the political, cultural, and "spiritual" dimensions of Israel, and of course, the word that excites even the tamest of college students, partying. And have I mentioned partying? The description is very careful to only mention the word "orthodox" under the heading "affiliation," and states further down that "Mayanot draws inspiration from Chabad spirituality." Nowhere on this site does it say that the Mayanot is actually an outreach/kiruv yeshiva, but if you do a little independent research, you'll find that Mayanot is actually a baal teshuva yeshiva, designed to help Jews become orthodox. Mayanot is run by Chabad and while their Birthright trip isn't making people orthodox, the trip does serve as another feeder for their yeshiva and study programs. This is the link to the Wikipedia site, but you can find this information on their site as well. In the blurb about the sponsoring organization, Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies, (not quite a name that someone would associate with an orthodox yeshiva,) words such as "academic," "intellectual," and "textual study,"are used--words that sound more like they were taken from a college course catalog than anything linked to an ultra-orthodox yeshiva. This is not to say that any participants on the Birthright trip are ever forced to become religious, however, be aware that ideas on religious issues may be from a Chabad perspective even if it's more like Chabad-lite, (what I'll call outreach that is specifically meant to get non-orthodox Jews interested,) and students may be urged to extend their stay in Israel for an additional three weeks to study on their Post-Birthright Study Program.

     The Mayanot Post-Birthright Study Program draws students in with the excitement of being away from home for a longer period, but also with the insanely cheap price. "Taglit-Birthright Israel participants can apply for a scholarship to join this program for only $99! This includes tuition, room and board for 3 full weeks (normal tuition for this program is $799)" their website screams. (They also offer longer and shorter programs.) Having traveled extensively while in college and on a tight budget, I can tell you that this would have drawn me in. Three additional weeks, all-inclusive? Sounds like a good deal! One of the ways they get to students to commit to the post-trip study program is by presenting potential participants with a sense of urgency, mentioning on their website that  "although applications for this scholarship will be available on your Taglit-Birthright Israel trip in Israel, due to the popularity of the program only those applications that are received in advance of your trip may be guaranteed a spot." How many young travelers, excited and possibly apprehensive about traveling alone in Israel, are thinking "well, I should definitely do this! What's a few hours of study a day when I can still travel and hang out?" But before you sign up for this or any program, stop and ask the trip providers for details.
     Here are a few questions you should ask if you're wondering if the Post-Birthright trip deal is too good to be true. The Mayanot trip may seem like a party and you may have an awesome time. But you should ask these things before you sign up for additional weeks through their yeshiva:   

  1. If I do the post-Birthright study program (which is not co-ed,) how long will I be expected to be in the classroom, studying? Will I have free time? Request a typical daily schedule, preferably in writing, with the times outlined so you can understand how your day will look.
  2. Will I be expected to adhere to orthodox religious practice even if I don't want to? 
  3.  If I decide the program is not for me, am I free to leave? 
  4.  What are my financial obligations if I decide to leave the program?
  5. Why am I being offered what has been billed as a $799 program for only $99? What are this group's ulterior motives?  
When asked about his experiences with the Mayanot Birthright trip, former participant Eli stated:
They made in obvious attempt to convince us to stay longer by repeating how easy it was to extend your flight. They also brought us to the Mayanot yeshiva before Shabbos where we had to sit through a parsha (Torah portion of the week) class. Most of the participants were secular and were only concerned with going out and partying. Mayanot encouraged that as well, even putting it on the itinerary as a frabrengen (joyous, usually Hasidic, gathering.)
There was an emphasis on Kabalah (Jewish mysticism) and we spent a bit too much time in Tzfat (famous for Jewish mysticism and Kabalah.) We had to hear a Kabalist artist who was a baal teshuvah (returnee to orthodox Judaism) speak about what inspired him and almost everyone felt they had to buy something from him.
Shabbos wasn't as strict as an NCSY2 Shabbaton, but we weren't allowed to swim or leave the hotel (there was actually a warning if one left the hotel they would be sent home immediately and have to pay their return flight.) I guess they were concerned for safety to an extent, but when it wasn't Shabbos they let us roam all around Jerusalem and Tel Aviv at night, so it didn't really make sense to me.
While I definitely felt a presence of kiruv, I noticed more of an effort to convince people to make aliyah (move to Israel.)

As for the Mayanot Birthright trip, be aware that you may be approached to extend your trip to attend Mayanot's yeshiva programs. There are other trip extensions that are not centered on religion. Or students can do what a lot of us did, and just bring a backpack and sleeping bag, and find a youth hostel near places of personal interest. No matter which provider you choose, be sure to research the trip providers and any information the website may contain about post-trip programs.

1. Other posts will discuss other Birthright options listed on their site as "orthodox."
2. NCSY is an orthodox youth group sponsored by the OU (the Orthodox Union) who also do outreach/kiruv work.

The following articles might be of interest to readers interested in Birthright

Birthright's Israel: The Political Bias of the Jewish Community's Favorite Program by Nathan Ehrlich. November 28, 2011
Birthright Alumni Center Tied to Haredi Outreach Group, by Gal Beckerman. September 2, 2009


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  2. Another well researched eye opening report kiruv. The gradual loss of clear information, such as what a day will look like, while subtly increasing the pressure to become more serious (you're a graduate of the little kids trip; surprise, this is what we expect now), is very troubling.

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  4. theres nothing wrong with helping jews observe one is being forced.

  5. Actually, eurolease, you are either mis-informed or you're trying to sell a kiruv lie. The fact that kiruv people hunt down less observant Jews with the intention of making them Orthodox, without telling them this is their intention, and disguising what they do as "helping jews observe Judaism," is very, VERY wrong. It is deceptive, misleading, dishonest, arrogant, slimy, corrupt, and fraudulent, and is made even more despicable because the unspeakable practice of kiruv is led by those in a position of trust, rabbis.

    No one claims people are being forced into observing Judaism. The problem is they are being coerced, cajoled, love bombed, pressured, and oh yeah - lied to.


  6. I think this girl Rebecca is brainwashed herself. Why is it bad to have kiruv? Nobody forces you at all-I've staffed several times with several coordinators. While there ARE options for a more religious trip (ie for people who are raised that way or interested in it) there is certainly no requirement. All food on the program provided is kosher and they observe Shabbat. Why? Because it's a tradition of Judaism, and the kosher thing is to make things easier(let me tell you it's easier to eat kosher in israel than not-you don't even notice..and i'm not observant). Girl needs to get her facts straight.

    1. What makes you think I'm brainwashed? I see that you mention that "Girl needs to get her facts straight."
      Please, *Anonymous*, feel free to cite where my facts are incorrect, including direct quotes evidencing brainwashing. Also, feel free to post with your real name. Stand behind your words, don't hide from them.

    2. I think Rebecca is opposed to DECEPTIVE kiruv. The kind where the point is to make new recruits ultra orthodox, but they don't tell them that. I agree with you, anonymous, no one forces the recruits. They love bomb them instead! Just curious, what group do you staff?



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