As is the case when two rabbis get together – no less 4,000 – current Jewish events were bound to come up.
Not surprisingly, a call made at the URJ Biennial by Birthright Israel co-founder Charles Bronfman caused some interesting discussion in my circle of friends. Bronfman’s call was for the Reform movement to “Take back Birthright from Chabad.”
To me it seemed that some were offended by Bronfman’s comments, translating his statement as one of contempt for Chabad. Others found his words to be extremely complimentary in recognizing the hard work and amazing dedication of the Chabad led Mayanot- Birthright team.
While I personally did not take a stance, my immediate reaction to reading about Bronfman’s statement and the “we’re going to meet that challenge and more” response of URJ’s president was excitement. I literally shouted at my phone (that’s where I was reading the report) to “BRING IT ON”!
Let me set the record straight. It has been eight years since I last led a Birthright-Israel trip (lately, I’ve been leading missions to Israel with my community members). Nor am I a campus rabbi. Nevertheless I think to truly understand the depth of Chabad’s tremendous success attracting students to its Birthright trips, as well as in their equally successful post-Birthright program, IsraeLinks, one must examine Chabad’s success as a whole. As a Chabad rabbi I feel I am hopefully equal to that task.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe was a trailblazer in Jewish outreach (or as he called it “inreach” since bringing Jews closer means connecting them to what is already there inside of them). But even more so, he was way ahead of his time in understanding the core needs of Jewish youth. In numerous talks, written correspondence, personal conversations and public addresses, the Rebbe stressed that a searching teenager or young adult is not impressed with superficiality. Rather, they are most impressed, inspired, and moved by truth. They are uplifted by experiences that touch them deep inside and they yearn for moments that can provide them a real connection to their souls.
A young man does not put on Teffilin on the streets of Manhattan because it makes sense but rather because it connects him to something deeper. A young woman does not light Shabbat candles on a busy Friday evening because it is the “in” thing to do but rather, because it makes her feel whole inside. Similarly, a college student does not travel to Israel because it is a cool place to visit, for they could just as easily travel to Italy, Australia, or Nepal. Rather they travel to Israel because 3,000 years of Jewish history and tradition call out to them seeking to connect them to who they truly are at their essence.
Furthermore, while occasionally a student may sign up for a Birthright trip on a whim, for the most part, a student is engaged by a loving Chabad rabbi and rebbetzin months, sometimes even years, before he or she ever thinks of traveling to Israel. These shluchim, the selfless Jewish leaders serving on college campuses worldwide, create a nurturing, loving, and deeply caring environment where a young student can safely question what it means to be a Jew without fear of ever being judged or labeled.
It’s Chabad’s philosophy of loving, caring and guiding every single Jew that sets the foundation for students to desire more of a connection, regardless of their previous affiliation, knowledge, or level of practice. It is through this nurturing and guiding that the students are inspired to get in touch with the connection often felt through a trip to our Holy Land.
This, then, is what attracts students (and people in general) to Chabad. Chabad offers something for every Jew. People are comfortable at Chabad because the rabbi jokes with them and the rebbetzin cooks a mean kugel. But they also teach them, encourage them and challenge them to get better all the time. All done in the most unconditionally loving way; not through preaching or party-line ideological platforms, but to each in their own special way and to all at their very own pace.
Bottom line: Chabad’s success is not in its marketing (though that helps, and may I say, they are pretty good at it!) or its choice of hotels in Israel, but rather in its authenticity. Perhaps more accurately put, Chabad provides an authentic and positive Jewish experience prior to the trip and uses the trip to reinforce these ideas. So when a Chabad rabbi or rebbetzin presents a Mayanot Birthright opportunity, it is more than just a cool tourist experience that happens to be free. It is a continuation of the ideas and ideals that he or she lives by and has been teaching from day one.
If Charles Bronfman or the Reform movement as a whole are serious about “taking back Birthright,” then they need to consider the opportunities a Birthright trip truly offers. They need to take a page from the Rebbe’s book in calling on their members to add in the observance of practical mitzvot and the study of Torah. They need to challenge their members to put on tefillin, observe Shabbat, keep a kosher diet, or the countless other ways they can promote growth in Jewish practice and observance. It is then that a trip to Israel takes on the most meaning.
Judaism sees Israel as more than just as geographic and historical place. Judaism is one’s identity, and in Israel one can get closer and more intimate with that identity. The land of Israel speaks the language of the Jewish neshama (soul). Israel is a part of who we are and its history helps teach us about our important mission in life. It is this perspective and through these experiences that a young Jewish man or woman is challenged to want to build a deeper connection to Judaism and to his or her Jewish identity.
So, if one day the Reform movement succeeds in “taking Birthright back,” it means it will have happened in only one way: through drastically increasing Jewish observance and awareness. And that, my friend, is a good thing!
So with this in mind, I reverse the challenge to you, Mr. Bronfman.
I say, “BRING IT ON!”