The Hillel House was quiet at the beginning of January, empty of students before they returned for the spring semester. But Sima Toledano, our Jewish Agency for Israel fellow, was poring over lists, preparing strategies and training staff.
Birthright registration will open in the second week of February, followed by a mad two-week window when students can sign up for the free, 10-day trip to Israel. In order to receive our own bus with 40 spots and two of our own staff members as leaders, we will need to get at least 80 students to register.
It should be easy, right? This is a free trip.
But the reality is more complicated, and there are many factors that a student takes into account while deciding whether to sign up. In fact, nearly two-thirds of 18- to 26-year-old California Jews have not yet taken advantage of a Birthright trip. Why?
Some reasons we cannot influence. Many students fear requesting two weeks’ vacation from a job they desperately need while in school. They are at the bottom of the employment chain and the job might not be there when they return. Others have to attend summer school to finish college in four years amidst cuts that have drastically reduced class sections.
For some students, the flight to New York (most trips leave from the East Coast) can be prohibitive. We have, for a few years now, fronted cash for the flight and allowed students to pay us back in monthly installments.
But there is one reason in particular that frustrates me, and it is linked to the very reason Birthright was created.
Getting students to see Israel is not the only goal of this amazing initiative. It was created, above all, to imbue a sense of Jewish identity in a generation whose families have drifted away from Judaism into assimilation. Birthright offers a powerful illustration of the riches of our Jewish heritage to a generation that in many cases grew up without religion being discussed at home.
On Hillel Birthright trips, the educators are trained to conduct specific conversations. We suggest best practices and places where these discussions might be held, including one-on-one talks between students and educators during bus rides. Those talks can be transformative, reinforcing a strong message that the student belongs to the Jewish people and can find his or her own niche in the rich and diverse Jewish campus life.
The problem is getting the young people to these discussions — persuading the student to sign up for the trip and attend the mandatory orientations. At each of these stages questions will be asked, often by the students themselves. I would not take any of this away. It is an important part of the process. But we need to acknowledge that it can be, despite our best intentions, intimidating.
A lack of Jewish identity leads to a sense of low Jewish self-worth. Many students pass up the opportunity because they feel they don’t deserve such a gift. They never went to synagogue, never studied for a bar or bat mitzvah, never kept kosher. Why should they have the audacity to expect a free trip to Israel?
It is not difficult explaining to such students why this is their birthright. The problem is that we do not get the opportunity to talk with them. They don’t stop by the Hillel table on campus and explain their dilemma. They pull their hoodie up and walk past with perhaps only a forlorn glance.
This is why many Hillels have shifted their focus to peer networking initiatives, leveraging engaged students to reach out to other students. We train a small cadre every year and offer weekly support as they seek out the Jews on the periphery. In the last three years, San Francisco Hillel has reached out to more than 350 students who are Jewishly unaffiliated, trying to bring them closer.
We need to invest more resources into these programs, increasing the number of empowered and trained Jewish students who are willing to seek out unengaged Jews and cultivate relationships with them. We need to invest in young staff capable of engaging these students in meaningful conversations. A donor recently told me he was impressed that we believe we are reaching about 50 percent of the Jewish students at San Francisco State. I wanted to ask him: “But what about the other 50 percent?”
We need to reach out to every Jewish student and
create a nurturing environment where all Jewish students on a San Francisco campus accept their birthright, if only for 10 days of their life. And perhaps it just might be a life-changing experience.
Alon Shalev is the executive director of San Francisco Hillel.