Report: Communities Must Do More to Attract Birthright Alums

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA)—Nearly 160,000 young Jews from North America have taken part in Taglit-Birthright Israel, a 10-day free Israel trip aimed at revving up their Jewish identities.

Of those no longer in college, only half have attended any Jewish event since their return.

That’s one of the findings of “Tourists, Travelers and Citizens,” a new report by the Cohen Center of Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. The report is based on interviews and online surveys of 1,534 Birthright alumni in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto, the four largest Jewish communities in North America.

“It means we have a lot of work to do,” says Daniel Brenner, executive director of Birthright Israel NEXT, a national organization that tries to steer alumni toward greater Jewish involvement in their home communities.

The Birthright program was instituted in 2000 by mega-philanthropists concerned about what they perceived as the younger generation’s lack of Jewish involvement. Numerous formal and informal evaluations show participants’ connection to Israel and the Jewish community are enhanced by their trip, but that does not translate into ongoing Jewish involvement, according to the new report.

“Years after their trip, Taglit alumni continue to look more like ‘tourists’ than ‘citizens’ in the Jewish community world,” the report’s authors write. “Although they value their Jewish identities, most have only limited participation in Jewish communal life.”

The report shows that 44 percent of Birthright alumni who are no longer in college have not attended any Jewish program since their return from Israel. A further 39 percent have attended just one or two programs. Only 4 percent have taken part in more than four programs.

Toronto shows the greatest success at keeping this population somewhat engaged, with 63 percent of returnees participating in at least one Jewish event. Report co-author Fern Chertok attributes that to the close-knit nature of Toronto’s Jewish community, which keeps Birthright returnees apprised of a well-planned schedule of Jewish programs.

In New York, where 43 percent of returnees have not attended any Jewish program since their Israel trip, researchers found an array of Jewish offerings but little effort to communicate that information to Birthright alumni. Asked whether they had even heard of a dozen Jewish organizations offering programs for their age, the largest number—67 percent—said they knew of the JCC Manhattan and the Y’s at 92nd Street and 14th Street, but just 20 percent had attended events there. Other Jewish programs showed even less participation and were lesser known.

Los Angeles showed the greatest number of completely disengaged alumni, with 53 percent saying they had attended no Jewish programs since Israel. San Francisco had higher numbers of alumni taking part in one to four activities—43 percent and 10 percent, respectively—but just 1 percent who said they attended five or more.

Both California cities are hampered by a lack of good programs, say the report’s authors. Those that exist, particularly “Friday Night Live in L.A.” and the “Bay Area Tribe” and “Late Shabbat” in San Francisco, are high profile and do draw crowds.

The alumni surveyed in all four cities said they would like to be more involved than they were in Jewish life. Most preferred small gatherings to large, anonymous “meat market” Jewish events.

“They’re happy to eat free food and drink free beer at those big events, but they don’t feel it meets their needs to find Jewish community,” Chertok reports.

Respondents also said they were interested in learning more about Judaism and Jewish culture and history, including Hebrew, but were wary of outreach groups with a perceived “religious” agenda. They also wanted a network of friends to share those experiences as a way of re-creating the camaraderie they felt on their Israel trips.

“Birthright shows people that being part of a group, a Jewish group, is a meaningful experience,” report co-author Leonard Saxe says. “They come back hungry for that, and most communities don’t provide them with a set of those experiences.”

Birthright NEXT, which has chapters in New York and, as of last year, San Francisco, is taking those tips to heart, Brenner says.

Last fall, the organization launched NEXT Shabbat, which encourages Birthright alumni to host Shabbat meals in their homes. It’s a peer-driven project, Brenner says: Invitees RSVP online, Birthright NEXT provides resources and recipes on its Web site, and it picks up the tab after hosts submit feedback, which often includes posting photos.

So far, Brenner reports, 2,000 such Shabbat dinners have been held in the past six months. The average age of participants is 25, and 65 percent of the hosts said they had never invited people to a Shabbat meal before. In 2009, Brenner projects 70,000 young participants.

“We need to make drastic changes in New York,” he acknowledges. “There are so many alumni here, and just 5 percent say they participate ‘a lot.’ ”

NEXT Shabbat seems to appeal to New Yorkers, he says: About 28 percent of Birthright participants come from the New York area, which also provides about 28 percent of those taking part in NEXT Shabbat meals.

Brenner points out that many young Jews sign up for Birthright just because it’s a free trip.

“They have no intention of doing anything afterwards,” he says. “But if we can meet their real needs, I have no doubt we can help the majority build Jewish community.”

Analysis: Mumbai attacks mean new challenges for Israel

ALTTEXTChabad men mourn near the bodies of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, 29, and his wife Rivkah, 28. Photo by Brian Hendler/JTA

Israel may consider beefing up security at hundreds of Israeli and Jewish institutions around the world in the wake of the terrorist attack at the Chabad center in Mumbai, experts say.

The attacks on 10 sites in the Indian city, which killed nearly 200 people, could lead to a shift in the way Israel views global terrorism and the way to combat it.

Besides tightening security around the institutions — Israeli representatives and businesspeople abroad may be advised to concentrate their offices in a single, well-protected compound — experts say there will have to be more training of counterterrorism forces, restructuring of intelligence gathering and enhanced global cooperation in training special forces and sharing intelligence.

The Indian special forces who responded to the Mumbai attacks were criticized as being slow to respond, inadequately prepared for such an attack and lacking key equipment.

Israeli experts long have predicted a mega-terror attack involving local, Western and Israeli targets, including symbols of government and economic power. Experts believe Mumbai will become the new model for international terrorist networks, such as Global Jihad or al-Qaeda.

As the Mumbai case showed, even in cases in which Israel ostensibly is not the focus of the conflict or attack, Israeli and Jewish institutions are likely to be targeted.

The lone surviving Mumbai terrorist, 21-year-old Azam Amir Kasab, reportedly told investigators that he and his comrades were given specific instructions to kill Israelis.

” alt=”Complete coverage of Mumbai Chabad attack” title=”Click here for complete Mumbai Chabad coverage” vspace = 4 hspace = 4 border = 0 align = ‘left’>Weeks before the attack, reports said, members of the terrorist squad spent time at the Chabad center to gather intelligence. If true, this shows that the attack on Israelis and Jews was part of the overall planning of a highly sophisticated, multitarget operation.

It has enormous implications for security at Israeli and Jewish institutions worldwide, but equally so for intelligence gathering.

At the behest of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the former head of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Dan Meridor, produced a classified report in 2006 on Israel’s defense and intelligence needs in an age of potential high-tech megaterror. His recommendations, which remain secret, apparently were largely ignored; Mossad chief Meir Dagan preferred to focus the agency’s intelligence-gathering effort almost exclusively on Iran’s nuclear program.

Counterterrorism experts now are calling for revising this approach.

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the bombings in subsequent years in Bali, London and Madrid all involved the Global Jihad’s modus operandi of hitting several targets simultaneously.

Israeli experts see even greater sophistication in the Mumbai attacks. More targets were involved, the targets were selected carefully to shut down a big city and the nature of the attack required a huge military effort to bring it to an end. The possibility of Hezbollah, Hamas or Global Jihad attempting something similar in Israel is a worst-case scenario that Israeli security specialists must consider.

What was new about Mumbai was the sheer size of the targets taken over by the terrorists. Indeed, the Mumbai attacks may serve as a game-changer in the way counterterrorist forces prepare for attacks.

Going room to room and floor to floor in a multistory, modern building to flush out terrorists who could be anywhere and to save hostages requires highly coordinated action by much larger special forces than currently exist in Israel — or for that matter, anywhere else. For Israel, it means training more special forces at home and possibly helping train others abroad. It also means heightened surveillance at potential target sites to spot suspicious people, guests or customers trying to gather intelligence and prepare for an attack.

Israeli experts note that the attackers in Mumbai were highly skilled in the use of weapons and explosives, had detailed intelligence on their targets and used sophisticated navigation devices. In other words, they performed like soldiers in a regular army.

Like soldiers, they likely spent time at terrorist camps undergoing training. An effective preemptive counterterrorist measure could be to hit terrorist training camps in places such as Lebanon or Pakistan, Israeli experts say.

While acknowledging the difficulty of fighting terrorists at as many as 10 sites, Israeli experts have been very critical of the way Indian security and special forces operated.

They point to three stages of failure: the lack of any prior intelligence on the planned terrorist operation, the failure to intercept the terrorists as they infiltrated the Indian coast and the slowness of the counterterrorism operation on the ground.

The experts were particularly critical of the drawn-out operation at Nariman House, the building that houses the Chabad center. Unlike the large hotels, the experts say, there was no reason to take 12 hours to liberate the much smaller Chabad house. For the hostages to have had any chance of survival, the counterterrorist operation needed to take place in minutes, not hours.

Others in Israel slammed the critics, noting that Israel, with its long history of fighting terrorism, has had its fair share of failures, too.

For its part, the Israeli government has studiously avoided any official criticism of the Indian effort. Diplomats, fearing possible strains on the close ties between Israel and India, urged Israeli critics to tread more carefully.

Israeli-Indian military, intelligence and counterterrorism cooperation is extremely close. Over the past several years, India has purchased an estimated $8 billion worth of military equipment from Israel, including the Green Pines radar system employed by Israel’s Arrow anti-ballistic missile batteries. India’s defense-related purchases from Israel amount to some $1.5 billion annually.

Just three weeks ago, Indian Defense Secretary Vijay Singh visited Israel to discuss the purchase of state-of-the-art Phalcon early-warning planes, missiles, helicopters and maintenance equipment for unmanned aircraft. The visit also focused on counterterrorism, with high-level intelligence exchanges on the war against global terrorism.

After Mumbai, the already deep cooperation between the two countries on counterterrorism almost certainly will be enhanced. India will want to share Israeli expertise, and Israel will be desperately keen to provide it. Both sides recognize that fighting global terrorism will take a huge international collaborative effort.

Closed for the Duration

Whenever there’s a wave of terror in Israel, the nation’s hotels come up against a wave of cancellations, and the country’s entire tourist industry — from five-star hotels to souvenir hawkers — goes into a slump. But in a few months the terror and fear subside, and the tourists come back.

Not this time. "The tourism industry has never had a crisis of these proportions since the country began. Little by little it keeps getting worse, and nobody can see the end of it," says Mira Altman, director-general of the Tourism Ministry. "Hotels are closing, travel agencies are closing, tour guides haven’t worked in a year. The tourism industry is simply collapsing."

The crisis began in October 2000 with the outbreak of the intifada, and people stopped flying to Israel. Then came Sept. 11, and people stopped flying anywhere. Now two wars have to end — the one against Israel, and the one against America — before Israel’s tourism industry climbs out of depression. This could take years. The question is: If and when the wars end, will tourists wishing to visit Israel again have hotels, tour operators, guides and such to accommodate them?

The industry is now in a survival mode, firing workers, trimming services and slashing expenses like mad, trying to stay afloat in anticipation of "the day after," Altman says. "We’re not doing any marketing, any advertising," she adds.

The statistics for the year beginning October 2000 are in now, and they’re bleak. Some 40,000 of the 180,000 tourism employees lost their jobs. Industry-wide income fell from $4.2 billion to $2 billion. Hotel occupancy fell by 60 percent. Scores of the country’s 350 hotels closed whole floors, and 32 shut down altogether.

Hardest hit were Jerusalem — the No. 1 destination for foreign tourists — and the other cities that depend heavily on overseas visitors — Tiberias, Netanya and Nazareth.

The city of Jesus’ birth was counting on millennium tourism to boost its economy. Three big hotels were built in advance of 2000: the Renaissance, Marriott and Howard Johnson’s. All three closed in the last year, as well as the city’s five other, smaller hotels.

Some hotels are considering retooling and becoming office buildings. A couple of the smaller ones have turned themselves into immigrant hostels.

Now that the Jewish holidays are over, another 15-20 hotels are expected to close — bringing the country’s total to about 300, down from 350 a year ago. "I hope 300 is the bottom and it will go no lower," says Avi Rosenthal, general manager of the Israel Hotels Association. "But I don’t know. The way things are going, we can expect a few thousand more hotel rooms to shut down, and a few thousand more employees to be fired."