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.