Do We Need to Pay Birthright Alumni to Have Shabbat Dinner?

Money in foodI’ve posted on this already in a couple other forums, but this is of special relevance to readers of JCarrot:Birthright’s post-trip program, Birthright NEXT, is not only reimbursing trip alumni $25 per head to hold a Shabbat dinner, but now they’re offering alumni organizers $20 gift certificates for each Shabbat dinner they recruit. Including up to $1,000, the email boasts.

What? Since when was Shabbat a pyramid scheme? When was multi-level marketing a way to excite people about cooking a meal with friends? Must we harness self-interest in consumerism in order to get kids to be Jewish? Have we fallen to a new level of desperation? There is something deeply smelly about this tactic. Once again, the organized Jewish community has decided to answer the droopy quality of Jewish life offerings with a marketing campaign and financial largess.I think NEXT’s money is mispent. A house party is not so expensive, folks — do it pot luck-style, ask dinnermates for contributions, and experiment with good, cheap food. The act of cooking together brings us together. This is the social glue NEXT should be promoting. And if Jewish life and Judaism is so staid and boring that money and are the only ways to get kids to gather for Shabbat, then maybe it should die off.

But Shabbat dinners are suffering under agendas even when free: New Voices magazine’s recent Lubavitch issue recently covered in several articles how the Chabad movement has a reputation for using Shabbat dinners to show young Jews what a beautiful Jewish home can look like. But as New Voices reports, this is being seen as manipulation, seducing newcomers into a type of Judaism that doesn’t admit at first that it prohibits a woman’s role in ritual and posits liberal movements as inauthentic.

Are Shabbat dinners now just a tactic to get impressionable Jewsters to play into your organization’s agenda?  What’s the Jewish community coming to?

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19 Responses to “Do We Need to Pay Birthright Alumni to Have Shabbat Dinner?”

  1. Rabbi Daniel Brenner Says:

    As the Executive Director of Birthright Israel NEXT, I must admit that we do have a smelly agenda but this is mainly because I recently spilled some Lentil soup on my agenda. But seriously, we are proud that through small grants that we have been able to encourage over 600 people across the country to host meals in their homes. For a majority, it has been the first time in their life that they hosted a Shabbat meal. So far, 74.6% of those meals have been homecooked by many hands. Most people had 14 guests! We sponsored many vegan shabbats, raw food shabbats, organic shabbats, you name it. And good food is often not cheap — and not everyone has the luxury of being near a farmer’s market. And not everyone has the time or skill to cook! Could we do it for $15 per person? maybe so. But we felt that $25 per person would make for a special meal. By the way, we are also providing financial assistance for Birthright Israel alumni to attend the upcoming Hazon Food Conference. We do so because we have found that in these economic times, people in their twenties do not have alot of spare change to go to Jewish confereces. We are a proud co-sponsor of the Hazon conference. Ben’s flippant comparison of our program to religious organizations that advance their ideological agendas via chicken soup is what is really smelly. First off, our trip alumni can host dinners where they want and have conversations of whatever ideological bent they want. Go ahead, talk about anarchist collectives or theocracies or Reform Judaism or Zen Koans– we really do not care. And unlike those projects, NEXT SHABBAT does not require hosts to have food that has been checked by Rabbi board X or Y. We will soon have 25,000 people in the program who have recieved personal invitations to home cooked Shabbat meals in the homes of peers. That, if you ask me, is pretty solid. Name a Jewish organization in the non-Orthodox world that can make that claim? The only way to do a program on such a large scale is to rely on volunteers who will spend hours contacting their friends. And yes, we reward those volunteers because we know that they are mostly in grad school or are underpaid at 9 to 5s — and if they want to take those Amazon cards and buy the books on the left side of this website, then gezunt. We are happy that hundreds of people like Ben who staffed Birthright Israel trips are helping us spread the word about this project. So while his ranting like Birthright Israel “Bribery” is a little hard for me to swallow, I will say that our offer still stands. Ben, sign up to do a dinner. Invite your friends, encourage them to host. And then you can tell me and my colleagues and the entire world that we have a smelly agenda. But until then, please chew politely.

  2. Eli Winkelman Says:

    Don’t worry, Rabbi Brenner. I’m hosting plenty of birthright NEXT shabbat dinners at the apartment I share with Mr. Murane.

    Ben, don’t you know how broke I went hosting my shabbes feasts before I found out about the generous offer from birthrigh NEXT? I spent all my money and had to move out of my swanky UWS apartment and in with you!

    No, but seriously, you suggest a potluck and/or asking people to contribute. A) My dinners are vegan. I think it’d be a bit much for me to ask everyone who comes to make vegan food for a potluck. (Not to mention that I don’t really trust other people’s cooking!) B) Even if I did have the chutzpah to demand that people bring vegan food, many of the people I have hosted like having the flexibility to choose to show up at the last minute and requiring them to bring food would definitely raise the bar. C) I like to provide for my guests. Obviously, if I can’t provide, I should adjust what I’m offering. But I would hate to “charge” people to come to dinner (whether that takes the form of money or a dish of food)! D) I like to cook!

    I think it is sooo great that birthright NEXT offers this funding. The money isn’t an incentive for me to host a dinner. It’s an *enabler*. Big difference. (I just learned of the Amazon deal, and that’s different, but I don’t yet know what I think of it.) Because you do have to put forth effort to host a shabbat dinner, I kind of doubt that they’re getting a ton of people who are doing it just for the money. In fact, that’s a stretch, seeing as they *reimburse* you for expenses; they don’t *pay* you to host dinner.

    Anyway, my whole point is that I was definitely hosting dinners (of all home-cooked food) before I found out about this deal. I couldn’t really afford it (even thought others did often spring for wine and/or dessert), and that’s one of the reasons I stopped. This support from birthright NEXT is great. THANK YOU!!!

  3. Ben Murane Says:

    Rabbi Daniel and roomie,

    I’m delighted my post received such energetic responses. And Rabbi Daniel, it’s great to have you on here and I hope you read us all the time.

    Just to clarify, I think the reasoning of offering the subsidies is solid, the intent admirable. But we’re still paying kids to be Jewish. This is the same as paying students to get good grades. It may even work — but is it right? I think the worst effect is that we are teaching that doing Jewish is expensive. What a shame!

    I mentioned Chabad not to equate the two agendas, but because I wanted to raise the issue of Shabbat’s sacredness and lament that, indeed, the sacredness is tarnished as it becomes a tool in a bigger game of “making young Jews Jewish”.

    Which brings me to the stickiest point: why are we using consumerism to drive up Shabbat participation rates? Is Shabbat good for its own sake or not? I would personally be very insulted to discover that the Shabbat dinner I planned was encouraged by my friend who wanted to buy a CD on Amazon. The values of Shabbat — a break from the rat race — are more than inconsistent with this, they represent the opposite of earning and spending. It was a poor choice to overlook the significance of Shabbat itself in Jewish life — secular or religious — and I think Rabbi Brenner your staff should reconsider. There are more menschly ways to reward those who spread the love of Shabbat.

    If you pay a tzadik to be a tzadik, is that person really a tzadik?

    I say no. Others’ thoughts?



  4. shev Says:

    While I find this an interesting debate, and without commenting on the pros or cons of this programme, I must point out that nobody is going to host 10 people for Shabbat dinner FOR A FREE CD. That would be WAY too much work!

  5. Ben Murane Says:

    I want to post another follow-up and clarification this morning.

    The purpose of this blog back when we launched it was to stimulate conversation around values and food. And Birthright NEXT’s Shabbat meals program was an idea that looked like it could elicit a lot of responses both ways.

    So just for clarification to all reading, that I’m not attacking NEXT or Chabad — both of which I have personally benefited from — but bringing a conversation to this blog that people were holding offline.

    That being said, comment away!

  6. Rachel Says:

    “But we’re still paying kids to be Jewish. This is the same as paying students to get good grades. It may even work — but is it right? I think the worst effect is that we are teaching that doing Jewish is expensive. What a shame!”

    Ben, doing Jewish IS expensive. However, that is not the shame. The shame is when the Jewish community allows expense to stand as a barrier to participation in Jewish life. Whether it is young folk hosting Shabbat dinners that hold to their ethical food values, helping young families send children to Jewish summer camps with scholarships, or providing lowered synagogue dues for seniors and 20-somethings alike the Jewish community needs to own up to the fact that Jewish life IS expensive.

    Providing assistance to all those interested in engaging Jewishly so that they can overcome the expenses of Jewish life is an age-old Jewish tradition and perpetuates dynamic Jewish life.

    The issue is wholly different.

    Rachel Gross

  7. joe Says:

    Way to go ben. I think the basic problem is the presumption that Jewish identification and practice is a good to be promited by any means (including financial incentive). The real question is not one of identification or practice, but one of value. If shabbat is a valuable to someone, then they will make it happen, if it is not valuable to them, then adding value in the form of financial incentive may ‘work’ in the sense that people host shabbat dinners, but I contend that it actually makes it harder to value shabbat for something other than monitary gain. I am happy to take advantage of the free money being thrown at young Jews, and I have participated on this program, but I do have to say that a) running a bithright shabbat felt like taking dirty money (because whether it is explicate or not that money comes with a Zionist and ‘jewish baby’ agenda (just listen to steinhardt, or see the birthright policy on travel in Palestine for evidence of this)) and that b) the shabbat experience itself was transformed by the need to out and count birthright alumni. I’m all for providing the tools and inspiration to foster DIY Judaism, but it must be in terms of personal value and community building, rather than financial incentive, Zionist advocacy, and racialist concerns about ‘continuity’.

  8. Jimmy Says:

    Hey Ben,

    I host, when stateside, Shabbat dinners regularly as potlucks and find them well attended for the most part. We don’t hold to ritual much, but the concept of lighting a few candles, cooking good food and discussing relevant topics from a Jewish point of view as a regular event I’ve found to be very appealing to other Jews like myself (tall, incredibly handsome, etc.) who are largely secular but very into our tribal/ethnic identity. One benefit of this is that almost to a person, none of us are very involved in the organized Jewish community in the U.S. but are instead activists, co-workers, friends of friends and the like, that is to say, those who the paranoid fear are being “lost” to assimilation. We even use torah sometimes if we’re talking about something with a relevant historical parallel (for example, we did NOT use torah during “Us Jews in Comics History” night, which I definitely want to do again; but very much did use Exodus in the dinner I hosted before Pesach last year…) So the community is out there and willing to be built, willing to participate, and it definitely doesn’t require bribes, just creativity in finding people to be involved. That said, if NEXT wants to give me money to do what I’m already doing, I’d sure as hell take it and then over the next dinner we’d decide what to do with it. Beware NEXT, the answer to that question will probably just be more beer or a donation to a leftist Israeli or Palestinian group!

    b’shalom, Jimmy

  9. Rabbi Daniel Brenner Says:

    For 65.7% of the hosts for our dinners this was the first time they ever hosted. When asked “Would you have done this without the reimbursement?” 79.5% said NO. There is a difference from valuing Shabbat and being able to host a dinner for 14 people! And Joe, as you know, Birthright Israel NEXT didn’t ask Shabbat hosts to move to Israel, have babies, or both. And no, we didn’t ask them to do a racial check at the door either. Your critique is misplaced.

    Why Amazon? When you have cut hundreds of checks and processed them, you begin to realize that it is a huge waste of paper, resources and time and you understand very quickly why Amazon cards are a better alternative. And another thing — people like them. Find me a serious social research institute that does not comp for hour long interviews with an online gift certificate and I’d be happy to learn from them.

  10. Eric Schulmiller Says:

    Thanks for sparking this interesting debate, Ben! But I have to say, I agree with Rabbi Brenner & his approach (and his attitude!) 100%.

  11. joe Says:

    Rabbi Brenner, thanks for taking the time to engage in this debate. That comitment peaks volumes. I think you misunderstood some of my critique. By Zionist I did not mean move to Israel, but support of the Zionist project of an ethno-nationalist state. As for the babies, it’s clear that us Steinhardt’s agenda, I’ve heard him talk about funding honeymoons for Jewish couples etc. It’s clear his investment in continuity (and much of the continuity discource itself) is based on a racial (meaning biological) conception of Jewishness, it is this basic comitment, to Jews as bodies, rather than to meaningful lives, Jewish or otherwise, which is so objectionable about birthright and the continuity agenda it was built to serve. If you can tell me honestly that birthright would consider it’s non-Zionist alumni who are raising multifaith families a success, and that outcome is as explicitly valued as affiliation or engagment then I would have no problem with ‘birthright’.

  12. Rabbi Daniel Brenner Says:


    Two comments:

    First – We live in a world chock full of what you have called “ethno-nationalist states.” (And I would argue that this is a misunderstanding of Israel which is a multi-ethnic state on a number of levels) In fact, I have yet to see a state that did not privlidge certain ethnic groups in its citizenship laws. And yes, it got that way for a long host of reasons like war and discrimination and racial ideas. My sense is that it is because humans, like other creatues, mark territory. That ain’t changing anytime soon.

    Second – Jews have bodies. Speak with people who study genetic disease and you will find that alot of those bodies have unique features. If I learned anything from second wave feminism, it is to see the false dichotomy in talk of “bodies” and “meaning” as separate entities. When you turn Judaism into “meaning” you negate bodies — you actually turn Judaism into a Western religious system rather than a spiritual civilization. (please read Kaplan, all Jcarrot lovers!)

    And now I will speak personally — I celebrate the fact that young Jewish people find one another and fall in love. After years of dating folks outside of the Jewish world, I finally found my beshert — who shares (and even exceeds) my commitment to both a creative and serious Jewish life and an authentic and eccentric Jewish home. My friends who married people outside of the Jewish world are all wrestling with the difficult task of how to do that, and it hurts me to see how hard it is. Their kids want to love mommy and daddy (or mommy or daddy and daddy) and they can’t get deep into either faith because of this. And I have one friend who this very week is heartbroken about it. I won’t mention the divorces I have seen in my time serving as a congregational rabbi. The goal of rabbis should not be to build communities of non-zionist multifaith people. But can we support such people in their desire to connect Jewishly? yes. But, no, that is not our goal, so apparently you will never be happy with my work. My goal, as outlandishly traditional as it may be, is for Jewish people to find other Jewish people that they love and for them to have a connection to Israel in a way that is not superficial, but actual – and expressed in all sorts of ways. And every Friday they should bake challah and dip it into kibbutz-produced honey imported direct from the Zionist project.

  13. chanie Says:

    i wonder if using the financial incentive, along with creating more content based incentives/support would be better.
    i applaud the effort to have people bring canned food in cooperation with feed america, (
    in general, providing people with content or ideas or building community around people who are hosting and attending might be a way to think about making it easier for people to be less intimidated about hosting a meal, without only relying on financial based incentives.

  14. Rabbi Shmuel Says:

    We read in today’s Torah portion Lech Lecha that Avraham went to battle with 318 men. What is the significance of the number 318? The Kedushas Levi says that in gematria it spells “siach” – “discussion” – that Avraham’s primary weapon was verbal . (Apropos to this blog 318 is also the section in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) which discusses cooking on and for Shabbos.) So perhaps our friends at Chabad and Birthright have stumbled upon a time-tested winning plan – a nice meal and some intimate conversation.

    That being said, I have a couple of problems with the post. Firstly, how is paying kids to host a Shabbos meal different than bribing fund raisers with Hazon water bottles, little bike sockees and jerseys at different levels of fund raising? If environmentalism is the ultimate “tikkun olam” why does there need to be so much swag involved in motivating people to get behind it? So may I assume that you’ll pass your disdain for “pyramid schemes” on to the powers that be at Hazon?

    I was not insulted by your rant. Nor would the many dedicated Chabad shluchim and shluchos that I know be. But don’t you think it’s a bit insulting to your peers – the prospective beneficiaries of your wisdom – to claim that they – 20-somethings who are highly educated, street smart and tech savvy – could be spiritually seduced by a kid barely older than them with an 8th grade secular education and a scraggly beard? And what of his his wig wearing wife?

    On a positive note I thank you for the hyperlinks – the articles were quite informative. But perhaps it is precisely that “zaidy factor” that does appeal to college students. Just because your personal mission is to pry Judaism out of the . . . doesn’t mean that zaidy wasn’t right.

  15. Ben Murane Says:

    Reb Shmuel,

    Thanks for the teaching — gematria one of my favorite disciplines of Torah study.

    And you hit the nail on the head: is Shabbos the same level of spiritual and communal importance as a bike ride? *Should* we be printing Shabbos swag? Just to take this to an extreme: a water bottle for every participant, a jersey for each meal planner, and a 15-speed bike for each set of newlyweds.

    What was it about Jewish life that survived millenia without swag? And what DOES motivate those Chabad shluchim (emissaries) to move to disparate corners of the globe to hold Shabbos dinners for any Jew who wishes? I feel the questions are linked. If examined, I feel it would yield better models for outreach than a $25/head dinner reimbursement.

    You tell me.

    (I love a good discussion!)



  16. pieces of eight Says:

    >>it’s a bit insulting to your peers to claim that they – 20-somethings who are highly educated, street smart and tech savvy – could be spiritually seduced by a kid barely older than them with an 8th grade secular education and a scraggly beard? And what of his his wig wearing wife?

    The opposite is also true: Chabad Shluchim are highly educated (in Jewish thought and practice), street smart and tech savvy… By contrast, the 20-somethings you refer to have less than an eighth-grade knowledge of Judaism, so far from being “seduced” (a loaded word), I think that there is the potential for real acceptance.

    Your reference to the “scraggly beards” and “wigs” implies that you choose not to look beyond the superficial… Thankfully, we live in a post-superficial age, where beard-length or skin tone are not critical factors in deciding to choose a rabbi or a president.

  17. Rabbi Shmuel Says:

    Your reference to the “scraggly beards” and “wigs” implies that you choose not to look beyond the superficial… Thankfully, we live in a post-superficial age, where beard-length or skin tone are not critical factors in deciding to choose a rabbi or a president.

    We’ve obviously never met:) (I’m from the scraggly bearded ones) I was merely playing devils advocate – Even Freud concedes that sometimes a kugel is just a kugel!

  18. Resources Says:

    Any time you’re in a spot exactly where feeding on poor , calorie-dense foods and nutrients has primarily developed into some way of life , it’s hard to picture your own self to be anyone else.

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