A matter of taste — Birthright ads are hard to swallow

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The ad certainly grabs your attention. Under the caption, "Sometimes it's hard being Jewish," is a photo of wailing baby about to be circumcised by a white-bearded mohel. Just below is a photo of a smiling young man floating in the Dead Sea, with the caption, "Sometimes it isn't."

The ad, and two similar ones with the same copy — one featuring a little boy studying for the LSAT (law school entrance exam) and the other a bookish would-be basketball player dwarfed by tall jocks on either side of him — have appeared in Rolling Stone and about 100 college newspapers in recent weeks. They are part of a $3 million annual advertising campaign, including radio spots, geared toward marginally affiliated Jewish college students and sponsored by Birthright Israel, the new philanthropic effort whose goal is to send every young Jew on a free trip to Israel.

Judging from the response rate, the first Birthright trip, set for late December, is over-subscribed — there are 5,000 slots — and a major success. Officials at Birthright and the hot Manhattan ad agency, Dweck Inc., which came up with the campaign, are more than pleased with the results.

"This is an audience that is hard to reach," explained Michael Dweck, CEO and creative director of the agency, which specializes in reaching young people. "The distractions are enormous and it's our job to get through."

Ivy Abrams, vice president of marketing for Birthright Israel, noted that since the ad campaign began, phone calls inquiring about the Israel trip have increased from about 50 a week to more than 700, and traffic on the organization's Web site has tripled.

But some officials affiliated with Hillel, the Jewish campus organization, are incensed by the ad campaign — not to mention the expenditure of dollars for it — charging that it advocates and reinforces outdated, negative stereotypes and is counter to Hillel's effort to promote a positive Jewish identity. They complain that whether or not the ads are effective in grabbing attention, they portray Jews as tribally ritualistic, excessively pushy and bookishly unathletic, and have a detrimental effect.

Michael Brooks, Hillel director at the University of Michigan, is so upset with the campaign that he told Birthright officials if they placed an ad in the Ann Arbor campus newspaper, he would withdraw Hillel's participation in the program.

"There are still a lot of Jews who find JAP [Jewish American Princess] jokes funny, but that doesn't make them any less self-defeating or problematic," he said.

Gerald Serotta, Hillel director at George Washington University, said he felt the campaign was "pathetic, inaccurate and in incredibly bad taste." His campus newspaper ran one of the ads last week, well after the allotted slots for his campus had been filled. Serotta, who was shown the ad by several offended students, said it was "geared toward the 'Seinfeld' level of Jewish identity.

"The message here is that to be a good Jew you have to go to law school or medical school," said Serotta, "and I worry about the other Jews and many non-Jews who see these ads. It's a problematic message to make on a multicultural campus."

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Hillel director at UCLA, one of two schools where the ads were test-marketed, said the ads "cheapen the objective. We have to promote our goals with integrity or we risk transforming them into just another consumer product. Israel is not a cigarette."

Are the Hillel folks over-reacting, convinced that the dollars spent on the national ad campaign could have been put to better use in their programming? Certainly that's part of their objection, as well as their complaint that they were not consulted in advance. They say they promoted the Israel trip on their campuses and were over-subscribed well before the Birthright ads even came out. And they maintain that Hillel's ads, with the copy line, "The trip is free, the experience priceless," attracted attention while making a positive point.

Michael Dweck maintains that his advertising "was written by a Jewish copywriter at a Jewish-owned advertising agency for a Jewish organization backed by Jewish philanthropists, other Jewish organizations and the state of Israel itself." He said the campaign "does not employ negative stereotypes" but refers to ritual practices (a bris) or cultural expectations — going to law school or medical school — that reflect "Jewish adult hopes and expectations for their children."

He said there is an art to reaching college students and that they are sophisticated enough to appreciate "tongue-in-cheek" humor. He said he would be more upset if students were offended by the ads, rather than Hillel officials.

Surely there is more brewing under the surface here than the content of a few ads. Some Hillel officials feel left out and unappreciated by the Jewish communal powers who have invested so heavily in the glitzy Birthright campaign. The Hillel people feel they are the ones who live and breathe campus life and are not being credited for signing up most of the Birthright applicants.

And it's not difficult to imagine that Jewish communal leaders figured that while Hillel is doing a great job, this was an opportunity to reach well beyond the scope of the Jewish campus group.

So the Birthright ads have become a kind of Rorschach test about Jewish identity, image and values. The Hillel people are saying "we should be able to promote Israel, Judaism and Jewish life without stooping to old stereotypes." The Birthright people are saying "Hey, we know how to reach these kids, and it worked, didn't it?"

All true — but maybe someday our communal leaders will be able to "sell'' the Jewish experience without resorting to the lowest common denominators.