Thursday, October 29, 2009

birthright israel study results misleading

“Non-Orthodox Taglit participants were 57% more likely to have a Jewish spouse than non participants” ---Well, not exactly

A new study of the effect of birthright Israel has strengthened the case for further support to this giant community project.

The Jewish Week in reporting on the findings says, “the most dramatic finding of the new study asserts that Birthright participants are far more likely than non-participants to marry Jews and to want to raise Jewish children”.

Well, I am not sure if that’s exactly what the report shows.

The new study of the effects of the birthright israel trip states that “Non-Orthodox Taglit participants were 57% more likely to have a Jewish spouse than non participants.”

That is true if you compare the married participants to the married non-participants. But that is leaving out some important information. The study also notes that non-participants are more likely to be married (by my calculations, 57% more) than birthright participants. In other words, it is not that there are more Jews marrying Jews but there are less Jews marring non-Jews.

Why should that the non-participants are getting married faster than the participants? The study offers a possible explanation that since participants are more likely to want to marry a Jewish person they “spend a longer time searching for a suitable partner”. The assumption being that the birthright participants will “catch up” to the non -participants in terms of marriage and maintain the differences in terms of intermarriage.

But is that a fair assumption to make? The 2001 National Jewish Population Study shows that there is a very significant drop in the importance of marrying a Jew as the single moves into their 30’s.

The birthright study also notes that there is no significant differences on dating patterns (Jewish vs. non-Jewish) among the participants and the control group. It would seem then more likely that over time the birthright participants will catch up with the non-participants as far as their intermarriage rate goes as well.

The study also shows that out of those who married Jews, 21% of spouses of birthright participants were converts to Judaism, as opposed to 5% of the Jewish spouses of non-participants surveyed. (Since the figures do not include Orthodox participants we can assume that almost all of these conversions were not halachic, but that is another issue).

So what does this all mean? If we can believe the figures that are presented to us, it shows that birthright was effective in getting some Jews not to marry non-Jews but was not effective in getting them to marry Jews. Instead they have either put off marriage or convinced their non-Jewish partner to convert.

Not bad for a mere $650 million.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

A Different Approach to Jewish Campus Outreach

"We don’t need a Silver Bullet but rather… "Silver Buckshot” — any number of small but sustained efforts to heighten Jewish identity and awareness."

Gary Rosenblatt, 10/25/2007, The Jewish Week

An intermarriage rate of over 50% is like flood dam that has burst. There are those that are busy trying to stop the flood by coming up with a mass program that will block the dam. There are others that say that in a case like this there is nothing that can be done to prevent the flood so we must rescue whoever we can one at a time.

The last decade has seen several attempts at both approaches. Hundreds of millions of extra dollars have been spent on various projects to excite the college youth and bring them closer in line so that they will at least marry Jews. What can we say about the results of these projects?

Birthright Israel has definitely had an impact on many young Jews. Their studies show that there was a modest but statistically significant difference in commitment to marry someone Jewish when one compared birthright participants to those that did not participate in the trip. One could however argue that a modest difference in feeling that it is important to marry some one Jewish is not enough to alter intermarriage rates. After all, it is common to hear young people say that it is important to marry a Jew but at the same time they feel that they have no control over who they marry. The main message of birthright is to love Israel. Messages of how to live a life as a Jew in the Diaspora do not seem to be stressed.

Chabad has increased the number of shluchim on university campuses significantly in the last few years, mostly due to funding from George Rohr. Chabad itself does not seem interested in statistics of their overall affect but would rather look at every Jew they meet as an individual neshama.

Although less centralized, the outreach efforts from the Haredi world have picked up dramatically in the last ten years. Groups like JAM in LA, Aish HaTorah in a smattering of campuses and outreach efforts from Community Kollels have increased the exposure of Jewish students to traditional Judaism and learning. By its nature, this work is very hands on, saving one Jew at a time.

One could probably say that collectively, Chabad has significantly influenced the Jewish identity of more Jewish students than has birthright or Haredi kiruv. On the other hand, few feel that the solution is to have more Chabad houses. Where Chabad is usually viewed favorably by those that have been involved, it is often viewed with negativity by the students on the outside. The message received by Jewish students is often, if this is what being an observant Jew entails, then Observant Judaism is not for me.

Collectively, all the efforts do not seem to be able to stop the flood of assimilation or even to register a statistical change.

Steven Cohen, probably the most respected American Jewish sociologists today suggests a different approach. In his report, "A Tale of Two Jewries" (Steinhardt Foundation, November 2006) Cohen notes that almost all forms of Jewish education, both formal and informal diminish the likelihood of intermarriage later on in life. More than that, these affects are additive, such that attendance of a Jewish camp and having some after-school Jewish education produces greater results than one or the other by itself.

The point that we can take from Steven Cohen's research is that we shouldn't be looking at a "one or other" approach to campus outreach but to an additive approach where we try to maximize the number and quality of different Jewish experiences. In other words, it is not the birthright trip that makes the difference, nor the Maimonides study program but rather a combination of many experiences over many years that is going to have an impact on the decisions that the Jewish young adult will be making about marriage and the importance of raising a Jewish family.

Taking the aforementioned approach creates new challenges for the potential program funder. On the one hand, no one program will be able to say that it can "deliver the results" that the donor would like. On the other hand, all of the "good" programs out there are contributing to reducing the likelihood of intermarriage. So what should we be funding?

I want to suggest that donors have to get involved in the cost-efficiency of the program that they support. A program that brings glowing results but at a cost of $10,000 per head (and this is not out of line if one includes all costs) perhaps should take second place to a program that can have a positive, be it more subtle impact at $500 per head. It is important for donors to be looking at the total cost. For example, they may be sponsoring an Israel trip at $2000 per head that has an excellent impact on 50% of the participants (cost now $4000 per head). But if you add in the cost of maintaining the organization that managed to recruit 20 participants your real costs may jump to $12000 per head.

Here are some suggestions as to styles of programs that are most cost-effective:

1) Build Jews not Jewish buildings. There is a tendency to feel that a beautiful building is the way to attract students. The time, energy and maintenance costs usually outweigh the benefit of buildings. Unaffiliated students anyway would feel more comfortable meeting in a coffee shop or a university dorm. Even when the building can generate income through multiple use, the headaches caused by building upkeep and the funds that it saps from the budget usually make it not worth the effort.

2) Community vs. individual growth. Even though we are living in an individualistic world, college students are still looking for community. If we offer them a support system of friends within a Jewish framework, they will accept the culture that comes along with it. Community means eating together, traveling together, celebrating together, living together, etc.

3) Joyous Judaism sells. We tend to want to give Mussar when what the students want is to celebrate life. We need to show the students that Judaism is a celebration of life. We have to make our joy greater than their partying.

1) Let the students run the show. Recently I started a program called, Project Shabbat ( which offers funding for students to run their own Shabbat dinners in the comfort of their student houses or off-campus apartments. The program builds community and leadership without any overhead costs. This is the style of programming that needs greater replication. Furthermore, studies show that the more the students are involved in the programming, the more their Jewish identity will grow, even when there is no rabbi to give instruction.

2) Employ students, not rabbis. It is clear that students have a greater ability to reach out and recruit other students to programs. The cost of hiring students is a fraction of that of a rabbi and family. More than 50% of students work part-time in some capacity so there is a market that is looking to be employed. That we don't have quality students to do the job is a problem that will be addressed below.

3) Invest in training students. We often underestimate the potential that students have in reaching their peers. Especially if the focus is on community building, the student does not have to have that solid a base to be effective in giving over some of the fundamentals of Judaism. The training that is necessary may be more in the general field of management, organizing and being responsible.

In conclusion, there are things that can be done to alter the flood of assimilation and intermarriage. The key will be to focus our efforts on cost-effective programs that invests in training students to run projects that involve their unaffiliated friends.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Interview in the Jerusalem Post

The following interview appeared in the weekend edition (glossy) of the Jerusalem Post.

My Working Week by Margaux Chetrit

Rabbi Charles Lebow
: 52
Marital status: Married, six children
Job Title: Director of Dor Le Dor
Job description: Coming up with creative solutions to stop assimilation.
Education: Bachelor's of Science (1977, McMaster University, Canada) Rabbinical Ordination by Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem (1990)
Years at work: Nearly 30 years.
First job: I delivered the Toronto Star newspaper in Cottage Country, Canada.
Worst job: Cleaning toilets as a volunteer on kibbutz.
How did you get into this sort of business? I went to a university with very few Jews. There was a Hillel there but it fell apart in my first year. The next year, I and a few other students organized an independent Jewish student group. Somehow I kept volunteering for things until I became the president. After graduating and spending a year in Israel, I decided that I wanted to spend some time working with Jewish students. I never really stopped.
Who are your clients? I am not sure if you would call them clients, but my target population is students and young adults in North America.
What topics do you lecture about? My main focus is on Jewish identity and leadership.
What makes you an expert on these topics? I don't claim to be an expert… I don't come with answers but rather I challenge the students to appreciate the problems that we are facing and encourage them that they can make a difference.
What reaction do you usually get from students regarding these topics? A lot of students feel that assimilation is a problem but since identity is such a personal thing, they tend to forgo discussing it with their fellow students. When you do inspire the few that actually rise to the challenge, for them it is all worth it.
Which is the most controversial? I guess the most controversy arises from issues of who is a Jew. With 50% of Jewishly identified college students coming from intermarried families it is a very touchy subject.
And how do tread the thin line? I play the role as advisor. I recommend to people that they should avoid putting their children in situations where their identity will be questioned. If they are in that situation themselves, I suggest an upgrade.
Based on your research, what is the biggest problem plaguing the Jewish world today and what can be done to fight it? I only deal with one problem and that is assimilation. It is probably the biggest. I think that there is a lot that can be done to make a difference.
The solution has to be to give more opportunities for young Jews to meet other young Jews who care passionately about being Jewish. Too much community resources are focused on teenagers and not enough on the 18-28 year cohort.
You have begun to use as a tool for outreach. Have the results been impressive? In two weeks I got 10,000 students to sign up for an "Event" called Pesach, that was hosted by God and took place at Jewish homes throughout the world. So you might say that it has served as an excellent resource thus far.
What are the perks of this job? I visit a lot of campuses around North America so I get a lot of air miles.
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing? Writing books.
When you were growing up what did you want to be? When I was growing up I hated that question. I used to tell people that I wanted to be nice. I think that I am; at least most of the time.
If you could share words of wisdom with the Jewish community at large, what would you say? Stop trying to fight our enemies and spend time helping other Jews.
What is your biggest accomplishment thus far? I think that I have lasted in the field longer than anyone else I know. That in itself is a big accomplishment. But I feel that I am just learning what needs to be done and how to go about it. So, the best is yet to come…

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

How I reached 10,000 Young Jews for Free is an on-line social network that is used by most college and high school students. You can use it to send messages, invite people to events, discuss issues, post videos, etc.

Two weeks before Pesach I created an “event” called: “Pesach” with the following info:

Event Info Name: Pesach
Tagline: "The Great Exodus Revisited"
Host: G-d
Type: Party - Reunion
Time and Place Start Time: Monday, April 2, 2007 at 12:05pm
End Time: Tuesday, April 10, 2007 at 7:00pm
Location: all around the world
City/Town: Everywhere
Country: Israel

In the description of the event I wrote a dvar torah with the following message:

Each year for the last 1800 years plus, Jews have gathered together to recite the Passover Hagadah. The Hagadah not only tells the story of our miraculous exodus from Egypt but gives us a guide on how to survive as a people in any future exiles that we might find ourselves in.

What made it possible to save the Jewish people in Egypt was that they remained a people. If the Jews had assimilated into Egyptian society it would have been impossible to save them. The Midrash tells us that even though they didn't yet have the Torah, the Jewish people kept a certain amount of separation from the Egyptians by having differences in dress, language and names. Adding to this, another Midrash says that they maintained a higher moral standard than their Egyptian hosts.

Today, we aren't so good at separating ourselves from the other people who we live amongst. As a matter of fact we have gone out of our way to look, dress and talk in a way that no one can tell that we are Jewish. As far as morality goes, well let's not talk about that.

On the other hand, we have Pesach. Somehow on Pesach we become a people again. So many Jews I know, who have melted into American society go out of their way to eat Matzah on Pesach. All of a sudden, there is a demand on campus for kosher-style (or even kosher) passover food. For one week, the Jews become a separate people, a nation.
Is it enough? Probably not, but it is a good place to start. Let us all make an effort to be distinctively Jewish this Pesach. Let us do it with pride and joy. Let us find other Jews and encourage them to do it together with us. Who knows what good could come from this.

I sent the message to 350 people on my list of friends. People liked it and passed the message on to others.

People receiving the message are asked to respond by a choice of “attending”, “maybe” or not” attending”.

Final results:

13,250 people received the invitation.

11,473 people or 93% of those who received the invitation responded.

10,057 people or 81% of those who responded said that they would attend.

Total costs: Not a penny.

Time spent on project: One hour