article in the forward

This recent article sheds some light on Birthright educational tactics and strategy:

Birthright Alumni Center Tied to Haredi Outreach Group “

Pluralistic? Birthright seeks out Jews from all walks of life for its trips to Israel. But some alumni of Birthright’s New York post-trip program have reported pressure to become Orthodox. (caption from the original article)

The article concerns the Jewish Enrichment Center in Lower Manhattan, a popular gathering place for Birthright Alums, staffed by Haredi Rabbis. The organization's interest seems to be making Orthodox Judaism palatable to twenty and thirty somethings. I can't help but see parallels between my experience and this strategy. On my trip, Birthright staff often took on a progressive guise while downplaying their orthodox beliefs to appeal to our group.

Most of the American participants I met on my trip would probably consider themselves socially liberal. They like the freedom to dress how they want, eat how they want, most want social equality for women, and people of all sexual orientations. This is all incompatible with Halacha (Jewish Law) as interpreted by Haredi Judaism, so these Rabbis must use a more clever strategy:
“If they had just said, if their whole mission statement was, we’re Orthodox Jews, we’d love to present this lifestyle to you and see if it’s for you, and then did the same exact things that they are doing, that would not bother me,” said David Siegel, who was involved with the JEC for two years and went on three of the center’s follow-up trips to Israel. “But they know they can’t do that. People will get scared.”
Haredi and Orthodox Rabbis cannot be upfront about their beliefs with most Jewish American youth because most of these beliefs would be rejected out of hand. This reminds me of a point on the trip where another participant asked a very direct question to one of our guides: do you personally believe that women and men should be separated while praying? It was a smart question because it made our guide squirm, trying not to take an actual position. He was a particularly hippie-ish guy who acted more like a spiritual guru. Ultimately he was forced to admit that he thought women and men should be separated. He danced around the question precisely because he knew an honest answer would conflict with the progressive image of this particular trip. He knew very well about the political beliefs of the average American Jew. He even went on to call a female Jewish sage one of the first feminists, which I would never say with a straight face given that she advocated rigid gender roles. An interview in the Forward article echoes this sentiment:
“They are ideologically ultra-Orthodox, but they would never identify themselves that way,” said Allan Nadler, a professor at Drew University who has studied the Orthodox world, referring to Ohr Somayach. “It’s the soft sell. Come for dinner, come for lunch, hang around, smoke some weed after Shabbos. But there’s always an element of deception.”
The deception strategy works for people with or without experience with organized religion. Birthright brings in people to try to sell Judaism (part of their own market analogy) without explaining its direct historical and continuing relationship to sexism, homophobia, and the legitimation of government. Our guides make it seem almost hip. They know exactly what they're doing. Someone who has spent little or no time in a synagogue may not understand the authoritarian experience it can be. In fact, they diligently avoided temple services.

Just to clarify: all Orthodox Rabbinical associations currently refuse to ordain female rabbis (although there are expanding roles for women in this sect of Judaism). If anyone is in doubt about the Orthodox community approach to homosexuality I suggest watching the movie Trembling Before G-d.

Birthright claims pluralism, but in my view, pluralism does not mean temporarily tolerating someone else's beliefs (and concealing your own) so that you can create the space to slowly impose your views on them later.

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