According to this article, Birthright — the Israel trip — suffered a 17 percent drop in registration, hired a fancy marketing agency, and eased its definition of “Jewishness” (whatever that means).
Birthright is a free 10-day trip to Israel. As in free. If you are young, Jewish, and never experienced a peer-based trip to Israel, then a trip to Israel is yours, for free. Birthright costs nothing. Nada. Zippo. Bubkis. Who doesn’t want that?
But people aren’t signing up — not in droves, not anymore — and Birthright’s numbers are down. Birthright’s target market — unaffiliated or unconnected Jews ages 19-26, the people Birthright was created to reach — are simply not interested.
Don’t want it. Not going. No thank you. A trip to Israel — even a completely-free-all-expenses-paid-10-day-trip-to-Israel — is not on the radar. They don’t want it. They don’t want Israel, Jewish, Judaism, or anything of the sort.
Not even for free.
Don’t misunderstand. Birthright’s target audience doesn’t hate Israel, not really. They also don’t hate Judaism or being Jewish. They like it. But they like it like Irish-Americans like being Irish. “Jewish” is your ethnic identity. Lighting a candle and eating latkes on Chanukah is like wearing green and drinking beer on St. Patrick’s Day. It is nice. It is fun. But that is about it. Growing up in the suburbs and listening to heavy metal is a big part of your identity, too. And probably a bigger part than being Jewish. Being Jewish is just another lump in the chulent. It is not enough to effect how you think, who you date, who you marry, where you live, or how you feel about politics in the Middle East.
And — surprise — being Jewish doesn’t mean you automatically want a trip to Israel either. Even if it’s free.
And that is the problem.
“Birthright might be close to maximizing its traditional candidate pool of affiliated or moderately affiliated young Jews,” continues the article I mentioned above (and which reads a lot like an official press release). Birthright instructed its new marketing firm, “To widen the circle of potential candidates by targeting a group described as ‘low affiliated’ young Jews.”
In other words, Birthright gets it. Sort of. Birthright knows that its target audience is not interested (the article claims that 60 percent of eligible candidates don’t sign up). The problem is obvious. But the solution isn’t obvious. And a free trip to Israel is not part of the solution.
And that is painful.
If you care about Jewish continuity, Jewish values, Jewish identity, the Jewish religion, or participation in the Jewish community, you know that a trip to Israel is powerful. You know that it is inspiring, life-changing, transformative. You would love a free trip to Israel.
But at least 60 percent of young, unaffiliated, unconnected Jews wouldn’t. They don’t want it. And even if Birthright is amazing, it is only amazing if you actually participate. You cannot participate if you won’t even sign up.
If you care about Jewish continuity — as the people who created Birthright do — you have to engage the next generation in their world and on their terms. Not yours. You have to be a part of the conversation. You have to be real and you have to be relevant.
A free trip to Israel isn’t relevant (neither are building campaigns, Jewish social justice, or Holocaust guilt; but not our topic). Easing your definitions and expensive public relations won’t make you relevant.
If you want to be relevant, you have to understand that being Jewish is relevant. You have to believe that. You have to live that.
And you have to engage the next generation with that. That message. You don’t have to spend a lot of money. You don’t have to fly people half way around the world. You have to understand them, who they are, where they are at, and engage them with your message.
And you have to believe it.