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Momo and Birthright Israel: Splitsville?

I HOPE you can come. Spend a long time in Israel for a CHANGE

MomObama:CHANGE!

Well, thanks to an article in the New York Jewish Week, the cat’s finally out of the bag so I can freely write about what many of us have known for weeks: the relationship between Taglit Birthright Israel and Oranim’s “Momo” Lifshitz is in jeopardy. Last week, Oranim officially informed Birthright Israel that it was not planning on participating in this winter’s session, calling into question the future of their relationship.

Why is this relevant? Because Oranim is the largest trip provider that recruits participants and runs trips for Birthright Israel. In the 10 years that Birthright has been in operation, Oranim has brought in nearly 50,000 of the 200,000 young Jews who have come to Israel – and Momo, in his trademark style, has greeted nearly every single one of them. So what transpired that would cause such a rift?

First it’s important to understand how Birthright Israel works. The Birthright Israel Foundation takes care of fund-raising for the trips. Taglit-Birthright Israel takes care of the programmatic, educational and management aspects of the trips. Finally a series of pre-approved and duly vetted Israel Trip providers are paid by Birthright to recruit and offer free Israel trips to participants. Right from the start it was decided that Birthright would use Independent trip providers to run the trips so that as many unaffiliated young Jews could be engaged to participate. Of all the trip providers that have worked with Birthright, none have been as successful as Oranim, thanks in no small measure to the loyalty inspired by Momo and his staff due to their very personal approach. Oranim used that loyalty to create a network of young Jews who by word of mouth encouraged their friends to choose Oranim as their Taglit Birthright-Israel trip provider.

So successful were these efforts that Taglit was forced to institute what was known as the “Momo Rule” whereby the percentage of participants that could go with any single trip provider was restricted to a smaller and smaller percentage. It was widely acknowledged that such restrictions were aimed squarely at Oranim, one of the few trip providers that was actually affected by these rules. Thus many people recruited by Oranim either could not go or were forced to go with another trip provider not of their choosing.

Oranim’s success did have its detractors. Some claimed that by appealing to the lowest common denominator – ie unaffiliated college aged students – Momo ran trips that were more about the experience and the passion (some say the party atmosphere, despite the fact that Oranim strictly forbids inebriation and does not allow staff to drink) than they were about imparting a strong educational message. There were issues with the message Oranim was imparting as well: “alumni say he routinely pushes aliyah, pressures participants to date only Jews and stresses that they should “make Jewish babies”” The New York Jewish Week wrote as follows:

Lifshitz cited an ideological reason for his move… “Due to new rules and regulations within the project, I have been instructed that there were certain things I was simply not allowed to talk about,” Lifshitz wrote. He noted that Birthright had prohibited him from using the phrase “raise your children Jewish” or encouraging aliyah to Israel. And he said he could no longer promise his free Israel honeymoon gift to brides and grooms who had met during their Oranim Birthright trips… “I cannot continue to allow my messages to be muted,” Lifshitz continued in the letter.

Momo can be a bit gruff, and he does not hide or make excuses for his agenda. Jewlicious has run 6 trips with Oranim and I can tell you the man doesn’t give a rat’s ass about political correctness. Consequently, some participants have taken umbrage with his message:

“Oranim’s ‘honeymoon package’ and emphasis on ‘making Jewish babies’ commit a cultural faux pas that carries the potential to damage Birthright’s image in the U.S.,” said Ruth Stein, who attended an Oranim trip in June 2007. “Such ‘religious’ choices are regarded as private matters that are none of anybody’s business… “Momo’s lectures on the unsurpassed beauty of Jewish women, among other topics,” continued Stein, “are especially risky given the trip’s reputation as a secular option for non-religious Jews.” … Apart from what some see as Lifshitz’s hard sell on dating Jewish, some participants were put off by what they saw as his hard line on Israeli politics… “The right-wing perspectives presented were rather unsettling, and the indoctrination was unappealing,” said a 23-year-old 2005 Oranim trip participant, who requested to remain anonymous due to his work at an American Jewish organization. “[Momo] spoke to our group, saying, ‘Some people say the Iraq war was good for Israel. Wrong. The Iraq war was great for Israel,’ representing a rather astonishingly narrow viewpoint.”

While Momo definitely has his own agenda, in his defense, when we ran trips with them, he gave his speeches but he never told us what we could and could not tell the participants. Anyone that’s been on an Oranim trip with us can tell you that they were exposed to a more nuanced message that encouraged hard facts and continued study after the trip.

It’s clear that the vast majority of the participants seem to have enjoyed their experience tremendously, especially judging by the continued success of Oranim’s word-of-mouth (and Facebook, and email etc.) marketing strategy. This past summer, Oranim accounted for 70% of the registered participants, although they were only given 14% of the available spots (another sore point mentioned by Momo). Birthright Israel seems nonplussed, some might say relieved even, by Oranim’s latest move. They lost no time sending an email to all of Oranim’s alumni encouraging them to tell their eligible friends to choose any of 2 dozen remaining trip providers for their Israel trips.

Momo’s letter leaves the possibility of Oranim’s return to Birthright next summer open. I don’t know if Birthright and Oranim will be able to bridge their differences and I don’t know if it even matters. Oranim is still doing great business running traditional tourist programs as well as MASA initiatives, and Birthright, for its part, seems kind of relieved at Momo’s departure. As for the legions of kids that would have gone to Israel with Oranim, will no doubt find other trip providers. But one can’t help but wonder – was this turn of events good for the Jews? Was Momo reviled for his message and personality or was pressure put to bear on him by jealous individuals and groups who simply could not compete with his marketing prowess?

An interesting aspect of the whole Taglit-Birthright Israel project is the fact that it is a unique partnership between philanthropists, a non-profit entity and a group of organizations and for-profit entities like Oranim and others. For-profit entities were included because it was understood at Birthright’s inception, that existing Jewish organizations had historically failed to adequately engage secular and unaffiliated young Jews. It was hoped that the profit motive would inspire these companies to scour the world for and engage disenfranchised young Jews. But over the past ten years it is possible that a sense of entitlement had settled upon some of the trip providers who found that marketing cut into their profits and that the lure of a free trip was enough to get people to fill their buses. Let’s hope that this development does not signal the victory of mediocrity over talent.

And one other thing. I have very good relations with several very good Israel trip providers as well as with Birthright Israel. Please don’t get mad at me – I’m just reporting the story. If you have any issue with anything I have written, feel free to leave a comment. We don’t censor anything except for the occasional Nazi or racist. OK?

Addendum: Yes, I created that MomObama graphic, obviously inspired by Shepard Fairey of ObeyGiant and his Obama HOPE and CHANGE posters. No I won’t make one of you for free. Sorry. Stop asking. Yes you can use it on your Web site but only if you credit both Shepard Fairey and me, David Abitbol – you know © David Abitbol 2008. All Rights Reserved. That sort of thing – first used here, remember?

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Founder of Jewlicious? Publisher? Man I hate titles. I coined the name Jewlicious and I slave over the site. I live in Jerusalem and I need to get some breakfast.
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