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Weinfeld: A Birthright for Jewish studies

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By its own standards, Taglit Birthright Israel has been a great success. Since its inaugural voyage in 1999, it has sent hundreds of thousands of Jews, ages 18 to 32, on free 10-day tours of Israel. Most of the participants have enjoyed themselves, and many say the trip was a transformative experience. Birthright alumni are more likely to care about Israel than non-participants, and more likely to marry a Jewish spouse.

But do they return knowing more about Jewish history, culture and religion? Not unless they continue to engage with Jewish life in a serious, scholarly way. Their reactions are more emotional than intellectual, and less likely to lead to long-term community building. In an article in Tablet, Liel Liebovitz suggested expanding Birthright by offering “free college tuition for American Jews” in Israeli universities.

But I have a suggestion that hits closer to home: pay Jewish college and university students to take courses in Judaic studies. Call it the Haskalah Fellowship, after the Jewish Enlightenment of the 19th century. Unlike a traditional yeshivah education, Haskalah brings modern methods to Jewish subjects.

I came up with the name, but not the idea. Twenty years ago, my father, McGill University sociologist and former CJN columnist Morton Weinfeld, advanced this proposal in the Forward. But it’s a good one, and it deserves revisiting in light of the cost and controversies surrounding Birthright.

As a Jewish studies professor myself, I’ll admit the proposal is a bit self-serving. But increased enrolment in Judaic studies courses would be good for the Jews and good for humanity, in a world where Jewish studies programs are struggling and the broader humanities are under attack. Teaching larger numbers of Jews college-level Judaic studies material has the potential to create a more intellectually, communally and politically engaged Diaspora over the coming decades.

It would do so without wading into the controversy surrounding Birthright and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has led some dissenting Jews to publicly leave the trip in protest, because the issue here is not Israeli politics, but North American Jewish priorities. If we want a Jewishly educated populace, a semester of advanced study of Jewish topics is worth more than a hike up Masada and wading in the Dead Sea.

And whereas Birthright is unquestionably political, the best university courses are more neutral and objective, allowing Jewish students to make up their own minds about the challenges and opportunities facing Jews everywhere.

The idea for the Haskalah Fellowship is relatively simple: $500 for each Jewish studies course, for a maximum of four courses and $2,000. To get the money, the student would need to get at least a B in the course. The university Hillel could register students for the fellowship and distribute the cheques. Any student eligible for Birthright would be eligible for Haskalah. This would create an incentive for Jews from less wealthy backgrounds, or those with fewer ties to the Jewish community, to learn about their heritage.

Birthright also serves a social function. The program emerged alongside growing concern over intermarriage in the late 1990s. Trip leaders implicitly and explicitly encourage romantic activity. But Jewish students can meet each other in class, where it would feel more organic and less forced. While this may not be as effective at producing Jewish offspring as the sexually charged atmosphere of Birthright Israel, the goal of the Haskalah Fellowship is not to recreate Jdate. Instead, young Jews can bond over academic interests and develop an intellectual Jewish community in North America.

Ideally, students would explore a range of topics – from Bible, to Kabbalah, to Jewish humour – rather than the narrow emphasis on Zionism and Israel that Birthright provides. After all, the Jewish birthright is not only a land, but a lifetime of learning. 

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