Yes, over-zealous officials missed golden opportunity

It is a parable for our times.

Birthright Israel is one of those gimmicks that have come to dominate Jewish life the last few years as business whizzes have taken over from social workers in setting the agenda of the Jewish community.

More and more, things are being done because the likes of Michael Steinhardt, Leslie Wexner, Edgar Bronfman and other billionaires think they know better than anyone, and have decided what Judaism needs most to solve what ails it, is a big dose of what has worked for them in the world of business.

And so, it's been flash and sizzle and quick fixes and gimmicks. One of those is Birthright Israel.

Now, I know it's not the Jewish politically correct thing to do to criticize Birthright. After all, what's to criticize about a program that provides free trips to Israel for young Jews. And, indeed, in theory, the idea sounds like a good one.

Except that it's a gimmick. A one-week shot of Israel, no doubt, produces a temporary high for those who take part. But that high isn't going to last very long and isn't going to mean very much. It won't give young Jews life-lasting, life-shaping reasons to stay Jewish or be part of the Jewish community.

But no matter. It sounds good, it feels like we're doing something and it makes those big-business machers who created it feel good about themselves. Shows what take-charge and big-picture guys they are.

But how hollow Birthright is, how hollow are all the inventions and machinations of those now running "Judaism Inc." was shown most vividly by something Birthright recently did.

What it did was send seven young Jews who came to Israel on one of its flights right back where they came from.

Here's the story. To be eligible for a Birthright trip to Israel, you have to be between 18 and 26 years old and to have never been on a peer trip to Israel.

Well, it seems that last month seven young Jews were part of a Birthright trip even though they didn't meet those requirements. The Birthright folks found that out upon landing in Israel, when the seven were going through passport control at Ben-Gurion Airport.

And so, the seven were sent right back to the United States.

Yes, you read right, they were sent right back.

Now, consider a couple of things. First is that American Jews aren't going to Israel these days, which has had devastating consequences for the Israeli economy. Consider, too, that especially not going are young Jews. Indeed, Birthright has had far fewer participants than it expected, about half as many.

And yet, here you had seven young Jews not only eager to go, but eager to go back, which is the key. And yet what did the geniuses from Birthright do? Send them back home.

Now, yes, what the seven did was wrong. They lied either about how old they were or about not having been to Israel before.

But is this sin enough for such a punishment? The sin, remember, is that they really wanted to be in Israel, the point of Birthright in the first place.

No, they shouldn't have lied. But Birthright shouldn't be so obsessed with its rules and regulations that it misses what all this is all about.

I'm not saying those who bent the rules should be honored for their actions, but in a way you've gotta feel, even kinda root, for them. They wanted to be back in Israel and presumably needed a free ticket to get there.

And while I would agree they needed to be punished for doing wrong and needed to be taught a lesson, was sending them back home the wise punishment, the right lesson? Why not let them stay in Israel, but have them, say, do volunteer work at a charity? What good was accomplished by sending them right back? What sense did that make? What message did that send?

As Marlene Post, former president of Hadassah wisely said, "They faked it because they really wanted to get back. Does it make me unhappy? Of course. It makes me unhappy that the Jewish community doesn't have lots of opportunities for young people to return on another trip to Israel when they really want to."