HEY, DON’T YOU WALK OUT!

Close to 25 years ago, Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, prominent American Jews known for their generosity and largesse agreed that something had to be as far as Jewish youth between the ages of 18-26 identifying as Jews. They came up with “Birthright.”

Known in Hebrew as Taglit, or “discovery,” Birthright brings Jewish youth from gateway cities in this country to Israel for a 10-day, all expenses paid trip of Israel, which includes sightseeing, lectures and meeting with Israelis. As a matter a fact, seated across the aisle from us on our recent flight from Toronto to Tel Aviv, were Canadian college students beginning their Birthright experience.

Little did we know, that a mere four days later, five participants (not those on our flight) would walk off their Birthright trip and onto a tour of Hebron led by Breaking the Silence, a group sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians. The five participants were also members of  If Not Now,  an American group opposed to Birthright, in that they maintained that Birthright had a “one-sided”  agenda, thereby concealing the “truth” about the “Israeli occupation”.

Pathetic doesn’t even begin to describe what took place, just as Chutzpah doesn’t begin to describe the behavior of the If Not Now members. If there were any justice in this world, other “friendly” Palestinians from Hebron would have greeted the five defectors with a welcoming committee, slingshots armed and ready, tires burning, while screaming “Allahu Akbar.” Heaven forbid that any physical harm would befall them, but I for one would have hoped and prayed that the experience would have left them shaken. Birthright goes out of its way to ensure and guarantee the safety of all its participants, yet a group determined to “save Israel from itself” meanders off to neighborhoods where they could very well be greeted with Arabs chanting “Itbah al-Yahud” (Arabic for “slaughter the Jew”).

Birthright is totally transparent as far as its itinerary and its goal. If that itinerary and goal is too one-sided for your tastes or political views, no one is forcing you to participate. Speaking of one-sided political views, Zehut is a political party in Israel, espousing Jewish sovereignty in all parts of the Land of Israel. Zehut encourages voluntary emigration of the Arabs in Judea and Samaria. Yet, I am not aware of any members of Zehut or any college age students who identify with Zehut ideology signing up for Birthright and then walking off their Birthright trip only to proceed with a tour of Hebron with the express purpose of meeting with nationalist Jewish settlers, living in a city surrounded by hostile Arab neighbors. For them to do so would be an affront to Birthright. To sign up for what amounts to an all expense paid for trip to Israel, only to walk off that trip because of one’s personal political agenda is antithetical to Judaism. My upbringing instilled in me that this is simply no way for a mentsch to behave. Would these same “walkers” accept an invitation to spend an evening with a family, only to get up partway through that evening, to walk over to and visit with a problematic neighbor?

If groups such as “If Not Now” maintain that Birthright is presenting our youth with a jaundiced view of Israel, then let “If Not Now” offer our youth an alternative Israel experience, replete with their own political agenda. They have every right to do so, provided they present themselves honestly. I will be the first to applaud their integrity regardless of how I feel about their orientation. If on the other hand, the behavior of such groups is less than forthright and honest, and their constituents sign up to participate on Birthright only to undermine Birthright, then they’ve reminded me how very repulsive it is when Jews turn against each other. And that, is a shanda of the highest order.

BIRTHRIGHT or BIRTH LIGHT

Last month I read about a program which is essentially Birthright turned on its head. Birthright as many of you may know is the brainchild of Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt. Twenty-two years ago, these two philanthropists came up with the idea of bringing Jewish youth (where at least one parent is a member of the tribe) to Israel. Whether you call it vitamin I (Israel) or vitamin J (Judaism), the purpose of Birthright is to introduce and hopefully whet the appetite of American Jewish youth toward their heritage. As far as numbers (participants), Birthright has been a phenomenal success.
The converse has been now created. A little more than a month ago, twenty-five students at the Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies at Haifa University embarked on a trip to these United States as part of a program to introduce them to American Jewish history, religion, and culture.
Kol HaKavod (way to go)! Yet, as important as it is for American Jewish youth to be exposed to Israel and as important as it is for Israelis to be exposed to Jewish America, it is vital that American Jewish youth be exposed to American Jewish history, culture and heritage. Sad to say, this has yet to happen. American Jewish youth – for that matter American Jewish adults as well – know bupkess when it comes to the contributions Jews have made to these United States and the ways Jews have shaped American culture.
If there are two abysmal failures inherent in the upcoming generation of American Jews, then it is the failure to take pride – real pride – in our country as well as the inability (due to ignorance)  to take pride in our American Jewish heritage.
Polish Americans have every right to shep naches that there is the Pulaski Skyway named for Casimir Pulaski founder of the American cavalry and hero of the American Revolution or that Henryk Magnuski, an engineer at Motorola was the principal engineer on the team that created the first walkie-talkie. Italian Americans have every right to shep naches that Christopher Columbus, Giovanni Verrazano and others played a major role in discovering this country. Irish Americans have given us no fewer than six presidents including, Andrew Jackson and J.F.K. as well as actors and television personalities such as Gregory Peck, Gracie Allen and Ed Sullivan. American Jews have every right to boast as well. The only problem is that American Jews are woefully ignorant when it comes to prominent American Jews such as Jonas Salk, Sergey Brin and Hal David, to name but three of so very many.
I love Israel. I truly do. But as proud as I am that Benjamin Netanyahu is the first Prime Minister to have been born on Israeli soil, I’m equally proud that Jack Lew, our current Secretary of the Treasury is a Shomer Shabbat (Sabbath observing) New York born Jew. My heart would soar every time I would watch the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin make havdalah; my soul soars when I know that Ben Braffman, one of the leading defense attorneys in New York, would never dream of missing a Shacharis, or a Mincha, or a Maariv service. If it’s true that charity begins at home, then perhaps it’s also true that pride begins at home. I am so amazed, that I am at a loss for words when I see that Israel has become number one so many fields, despite all the obstacles it must overcome; I am so amazed that I am at a loss for words when I see how, in previous generations, American Jews became number one in so many fields, despite all the obstacles that they had to overcome.
Jewish leaders, secular as well as religious are bewailing the fact that we are losing so many of our best and brightest to assimilation. Perhaps these leaders ought to get up from their self-induced shivah they are sitting and realize that the epidemic that threatens American Jews is not assimilation, but ignorance. By all means, full steam ahead with Birthright Israel. At the same time, let’s use all means to sound the alarm, loud and clear for Birthright America.

BLATHERING BURCHERS*

Close to 22 years ago, American benefactors Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt came up with an idea to provide young Jewish adults with a ten day Israel experience. Thus was born Birthright or Taglit (Discovery), as it’s known in Hebrew. For decades now, American Jewish leaders, including rabbis have seen how essential it was to promote what has come to be known as “Vitamin I”. It was felt that “a dose of Israel” would be most beneficial to young diaspora Jews. Hopefully, there would be after effects from this ten day dose of Vitamin I for many years to come. Personally, there have been a number of occasions where I have been contacted to write letters of recommendation for Birthright hopefuls and in some cases to attest to the fact certain applicants were recognized as Jewish.
Last week, certain ill effects connected with vitamin I were discovered. It was reported that less than 50% of Birthright graduates were able to correctly answer a multiple choice test consisting of 15 questions along the lines of: The State of Israel was declared on… (3 dates were given) and with which Arab countries has Israel signed peace treaties (3 countries were provided).
Excuse me? The average Birthright participant couldn’t tell you that Joe Biden is the Vice President of the United States or that Hawaii is the 50th state, let alone that the State of Israel came into being on May14, 1948 or that Israel has signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. While I’ve been known to bore dinner guests with factoids and trivia about Israel, while I’ve been known to provide Israeli tour guides with useful, yet unasked for anecdotes that they weren’t aware of, I’ll be the first to exclaim: Now hold on thar (sic)! The primary focus of Birthright is experience, not knowledge! Young Jewish adults are taken to Israel, so that no different than the Disney movie Lion King, they can answer one question and one question only: Can you feel the love tonight…as well as today? Loving and knowing Israel, unless it is “knowing” in the biblical sense, share no commonality.
Would it be too much to ask of these blathering burchers* of Birthright to formulate questions along the following lines: What top three sites in Israel would you recommend to first time visitors and why? Was there any time during your ten day experience that you experienced “goose bumps”? Can you tell us why? What were the best three aspects of Birthright?
Want to play test knowledge about Israel? 1) Which of the three does not belong? Altalena, Patria, Sturma. 2) The third Prime Minister was: Levi Eshkol, Moshe Sharrett, David Ben Gurion. 3) Who was the protagonist of the novel Exodus by Leon Uris patterned after? Abba Eban, Yigal Allon, Yitzchak Rabin. I doubt very much that you will do as well on my test as Birthright participants did on their test.
And so blathering burchers* of Birthright: Be thankful that there are resources available for Birthright. Be grateful that American Jews are eager to participate on Birthright. Be relieved that you don’t have to take a “Rabbi Zell test” on Israel.
* Burcher is Yiddish for a grumbler.