Alan Abrams

The real Birthright Israel — the Hebrew way of doing Jewish for less than $40k a year

America First. It’s Donald Trump’s slogan, but the reason it’s so popular is that it expresses a particularly American prejudice held by people from all over the political spectrum — that, whether we’re talking about universal health care, making right turns on red, or how to “do Jewish” — it’s just not worth listening to anyone from any other country.s-l1600Certainly, it’s not worth learning to speak a foreign language (except maybe Mandarin for people who want their kids to grow up to be rich).

It’s no different for the Jews. Look at scholar and Times of Israel pundit Yehuda Kurtzer, who, even though his day job is for a Jerusalem-based non-profit, recently scoffed at the idea that Americans might help reduce their costs of raising Jewish kids by moving to a Jewish country. In response to a Times of Israel piece about the financial strain of raising observant Jewish kids in the United States, Kurtzer summarily dismissed any discussion of whether one solution to the writer’s conundrum was to move to Israel. Aliyah “is neither a feasible nor desirable solution to a problem specific to the American Jewish community” wrote the president of the North American branch of the Shalom Hartman Institute on Facebook.

Really? Before I made Aliyah three years ago, I was scared. I was already in my 50s and I had no idea how we were going to make a living. And while I knew a good bit of biblical Hebrew, I wasn’t sure my modern Hebrew was good enough to order a falafel or open a bank account. Career and language are the biggest barriers to gaining access to this country and all its “doing Jewish” benefits like free ’day school’ education, getting all Jewish holidays off for most people and having tons of neighborhoods where you can live within walking distance of a synagogue without breaking the bank. Employment and language are big barriers, but are they really so insurmountable?

There are two reasons people like Kurtzer are afraid to even talk about Aliyah as a serious option for American Jews. The first is that everyone thinks of Aliyah as some kind of binary, on-off, you’re-a-failure-if-you-come-and-then-leave kind of thing; this problem goes back to the abBirthright_Israelsolutist ideology of old-school Zionism which held that Israel was the only place a Jewish person could possibly live fully and safely as a Jew. The second, and bigger, problem is the “America First” attitude of American Jews. Everywhere else in the world outside of Israel, Hebrew school is about just that — learning Hebrew; only in America is it supposed to be about building emotional “connection” (whatever that is) with Judaism and Israel.

Connection!?! Do you know what really builds connection with Israel? It’s the same thing that builds connection with anything else: Personal relationships. Actually knowing people. But it’s hard to get to know the crazy, but incredibly wonderful, warm, innovative, life-loving and energetic people who make up this country if you don’t speak the language.

The reason that American Jews don’t learn Hebrew — besides the usual America First-ism — is because physical safety is not an issue. Jews in France or Argentina make sure their kids learn Hebrew because they look to Israel as a sort of safety net — if things ever get really bad here, they think, at least the kids will be able to speak the language when they flee to the Holy Land.

But what many American Jews have forgotten is that they need a safety net too — a spiritual safety net. Take our anonymous Times of Israel correspondent who says that even a low-cost way of doing Jewish is costing him $40,000 a year. What if he lost his job all of a sudden and couldn’t find a new one? Well, if he at least spoke Hebrew and maybe had some friends and family living here, maybe he would take a chance and get all the free doing Jewish available to his family from making Aliyah. What’s the worst case scenario? After two or three years maybe he decides he can’t make it here and goes back. Meanwhile, his kids will always benefit from those years of being exposed to an intensely Jewish experience.

This is the real birthright. Not a 10-day free trip as a college student, but the fact that you have a special safety net, both spiritual and physical if somehow things in your life go wrong. You can try and make a new life for yourself here. The state even helps you a bit with your income for the first six months. Health Care is free. Even the fertility treatments that have bankrupted so many Americans are paid for.

But really the greatest thing is that Israel is still a majority secular country. When I was growing up in the New York suburbs decades ago, it was so easy to be a secular American Jew. Half our neighborhood was made up of Jews; you didn’t need religion to maintain your Jewish identity. But it’s just not like that anymore; there are no non-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods. It’s pretty much impossible to maintain an American Jewish identity now without being religious. Israel is the only place you can do that. Even if you’re just going through a phase of your life where religion just isn’t making sense for you or where God feels far away you can still find a safety net for your Jewish identity here without ever going to shul.

The Israeli government spends nearly $200 million of its taxpayer’simagesmoney a year funding Taglit-Birthright Israel’s 10-day free trips. It’s a great program that has the basic right idea that Israel is the ‘spiritual resource’ that can do the most to help non-Orthodox Jews maintain their Jewish identity. But, why can’t we take half that money to fund free Hebrew-language after-school programs for American Jewish kids — give them their real birthright. Are you listening, Michael Steinhardt?

About the Author
Alan Abrams is a spiritual care educator who made Aliyah in 2014. He and his wife live in Jerusalem with their two "sabra" children. Alan is the founder of HavLi and the HaKen Institute, spiritual care education and research centers based in Jerusalem. A rabbi, Alan received a PhD in May 2019 from NYU for his dissertation on the theology of pastoral care. He was a business journalist in his first career.
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