Philanthropist Michael Steinhardt is one of the key founders and funders of the Birthright Israel program, providing free 10-day trips to young Jews from around the world.
He is also the benefactor of the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University, which has evaluated the Birthright trips and found them to be highly effective in terms of influencing positive feelings about Israel and enhancing Jewish identity among program participants.
As a result, some educators have raised questions about the seeming conflict of interest, implying that the findings may be biased in favor of presenting Birthright in a most favorable way.
In several articles and presentations questioning whether free programs like Birthright ultimately are good or bad for the Jewish community — whether they coddle and spoil young people rather than prepare them to pay their own way — David Bryfman of the New York-based Jewish Education Project has said that “free initiatives often have solid research that supports them — and in almost all cases this research has been commissioned by the same people who fund the initiatives.”
The implication is that such practice is improper and highly suspect. But some social scientists say that it is common and does not pose an ethical dilemma.
The latest round of debate on the subject took place at a panel I moderated on “The Cost of Free” at the international conference of the Jewish Funders Network in Los Angeles last week.
Bryfman, director of the New Center for Collaborative Leadership at the JEP and a rising star in the field of Jewish education, summarized some of the reasons why he questions the widely praised practice of free programs, from Israel trips to books for children to synagogue services. He said that providing them at no cost might cheapen their value rather than heighten Jewish identity down the road.
He was challenged most directly by fellow panelist Mark Charendoff, a board member of Birthright (and of The Jewish Week) and former president of the Jewish Funders Network. He argued that Birthright donors had confidence in their program and, like businesses that increase brand loyalty by giving out free samples of their product, the donors were succeeding in increasing Jewish identity among participants as a result of the trips.
The session heated up when Bryfman asserted that “the lead researcher at Brandeis” said publicly, at a conference last spring on Birthright data, that the first several years of evaluations of Birthright were done to please the donors. He was referring to Leonard Saxe, a prominent social psychologist and director of the institute.
“We have a research dilemma,” Bryfman said, “when we’re scared to ask certain questions of certain people.”
When challenged by an audience member about the statement attributed to Saxe, Bryfman said he was in the room when Saxe said it last May.
Saxe, in an interview the day after the panel session, strongly denied the allegation and said that the comment he had made, and which may have been misinterpreted, was that “we probably would not still be in the business of research [of Birthright] if the results had not been positive.”
He stressed that his work is independent, and offered several examples indicating that he and his team bent over backward to avoid accusations of pro-Birthright bias. He noted, for example, that while some had encouraged interviewing Birthright participants about the experience while they were still on the Israel trip, or at the airport coming home, he insisted on delaying the interviews for months so as “to separate from the glow of the experience.”
Saxe also asserted that the Steinhardt gift to Brandeis in creating the research institute “has absolutely no strings attached and doesn’t restrict my work in any way. We have total independence.”
(Steinhardt is widely known for his willingness to give and take criticism.)
The larger point Saxe emphasized, regarding how foundations and other Jewish organizations commission research, is that “the key issue is the rigor of the study. Far more important than who funds a project is the question of whether funders allow researchers to apply state-of-the-art methods and encourage open dissemination of the products.”
The fact is that there are only a handful of key researchers in the Jewish community doing studies on population figures, assimilation, religious practice and other key elements of Jewish life, with an eye toward communal planning. And invariably, each new study tends to be criticized and questioned by competing experts in the field.
Some attribute this kind of professional sniping to the decision by the Jewish Federations of North America to suspend its National Jewish Population Study, a longstanding, once-a-decade major project. The last one, in 2001, was particularly expensive, complicated and the subject of intense scrutiny and controversy regarding its methodology. But sociologists now bemoan the fact that there has been no national Jewish population survey since then.
Lee Shulman, an educational psychologist and professor emeritus at the Stanford University School of Education, is familiar with Jewish organizational life and gave the closing talk at the Birthright conference at Brandeis last May. Shulman, who has worked closely with another titan of Jewish philanthropy — the Jim Joseph Foundation — said he “absolutely did not hear” Saxe make the statement attributed to him by Bryfman, adding that he “would have leaped out of my seat” if he had heard such a comment.
He also asserted that “not only is it not unusual for the same funder to fund both a project and the research on it, but it is the norm. It’s not new or unique to the Jewish world.”
He said he wished, though, that the research institute at Brandeis had not had Steinhardt’s name on it so as to avoid unfair criticism of its work. And he added that “the big mistake” made regarding publicizing Birthright research was in holding a major public conference after the first findings were released, more than a decade ago.
The data was so positive regarding the participants’ feelings about Israel and Jewish life that it gave the impression that the researchers had “crossed the line from careful research to public relations,” Shulman said. “It was too early out of the gate,” and prior to “careful peer review.”
Shulman said Saxe was criticized by some of his colleagues for releasing the full data too slowly. But he said Saxe was still working on the database at that time and probably “didn’t want others to get ahead of him.”
Shulman’s overall advice, based on more than 50 years in the profession, was for Jewish foundations to work “with their eyes open and base decisions on real facts, and not fantasies.”
As for Bryfman, he now has officially retracted his allegation about Saxe, and says he has apologized to him. “I’m pulling back on that statement,” he says, adding that while he was “quite persuaded by the [Birthright] research” itself, he still believes it would be best if independent bodies did the evaluations."
But the sense persists that there are Jewish professionals who look upon the handful of major funders of national Jewish educational projects as sacred cows, with the risks too high in challenging their work and motives.
It was Bryfman who said at the outset of his remarks at the panel last week that he might be committing “professional suicide” in voicing his concerns. Still, he said the same thing last year, when he first introduced his criticism, and appears no worse for wear.
The question that remains is whether there is any communal body that could, or should, critique how foundations and funders choose to spend their money in the cause of Jewish survival and continuity.
Some spend thoughtfully, others don’t, and we’re all free to comment. But as long as they hold the purse strings the decisions are up to them, as it should be.
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