Many of the young people who pass through the Jewish Enrichment Center in Lower Manhattan view it with great affection. It is often the first time they have come in contact with a Judaism that is engaging and accessible. The rabbis responsible for the center’s educational and religious programs are charismatic and approachable people who, participants say, have had a large impact on their lives.
As the official New York follow-up organization for Taglit-Birthright Israel — which sends young people on free trips to Israel and lately is trying to keep them Jewishly engaged when they return — there could hardly be a better model.
But there are also those Birthright alumni who have been turned off by the JEC, sensing that it has a hidden, religious agenda that clashes with Birthright’s declared nondenominational and pluralistic stance. Their suspicions have now been substantiated with the revelation that the JEC’s rabbis were trained at Ohr Somayach, a Jerusalem-based ultra-Orthodox yeshiva with international branches and a publicly declared goal of turning secular and nonobservant Jews into ba’alei teshuvah. The JEC, it has emerged, was launched as an outreach arm of the yeshiva.
For some Birthright alumni who spoke recently with the Forward, this confirmed what they had already surmised.
The realization for one person came when he was asked to memorize lines of Talmud and encouraged to wrap tefillin every day. For another, it was the weekend he was required to spend with a Haredi family on Long Island if he wanted one more trip to Israel. And for a few, it came only after an all-expense paid month at a Jerusalem yeshiva, where they were presented with a stark choice of abandoning their current life for a more religious one.
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