“Momo” Lifshitz is a legendary figure among Birthright Israel participants, a larger-than-life symbol of the free 10-day trip that more than 200,000 diaspora Jews have used to jumpstart their Jewish identities.
In the decade since the Birthright trips began, nearly 50,000 teens and 20-somethings have wandered through the gates of Ben-Gurion International Airport — and into the open arms of this balding, middle-aged teddy bear of a man. The president and founder of Oranim Educational Initiatives, the largest Birthright trip provider, Shlomo Lifshitz (“Momo,” as he is commonly called) prides himself on greeting each of his Oranim Birthright trip participants with a personal “Shalom and Welcome Home.”
But Lifshitz’s “message” — alumni say he routinely pushes aliyah, pressures participants to date only Jews and stresses that they should “make Jewish babies” — has drawn criticism over the years. And this week, citing new restrictions forced on him by Birthright officials, Lifshitz, 53, a secular, nationalist former Israeli army officer whose office is based in Kfar Saba, cut his ties with the popular trips, formally withdrawing from the winter ‘09-’10 trip season.
In an e-mail sent to thousands of Oranim alumni Monday, Lifshitz cited an ideological reason for his move.
“Due to new rules and regulations within the project, I have been instructed that there were certain things I was simply not allowed to talk about,” Lifshitz wrote. He noted that Birthright had prohibited him from using the phrase “raise your children Jewish” or encouraging aliyah to Israel. And he said he could no longer promise his free Israel honeymoon gift to brides and grooms who had met during their Oranim Birthright trips.
“I cannot continue to allow my messages to be muted,” Lifshitz continued in the letter.
A Birthright spokesman said regulations sent to providers have not changed significantly in recent years.
“Trip organizers come and go — it won’t affect the program at all,” said an official spokesman for Taglit Birthright Israel, who confirmed that Oranim was the largest trip provider. “There are two dozen providers and they provide a wide variety of options. The other trip organizers will happily pick up the slack,” the spokesman added.
Another official close to Birthright described Lifshitz as “a very good marketer” and mid-level educator who is “very charismatic” and whose agenda at times seemed at odds with that of Birthright.
“We want to educate people, make them proud Jews,” the official said, acknowledging that there were complaints about Lifshitz from participants who had intermarried parents and from others who said they were made to feel like second-class Jews if they didn’t marry Jews or move to Israel.
The official also suggested that Lifshitz had become difficult to work with — confrontational and self-important.
While some Oranim alumni said Lifshitz’s style could be heavy-handed, others said they had the time of their lives with Oranim and that his departure is a blow to Birthright.
“Oranim’s ‘honeymoon package’ and emphasis on ‘making Jewish babies’ commit a cultural faux pas that carries the potential to damage Birthright’s image in the U.S.,” said Ruth Stein, who attended an Oranim trip in June 2007. “Such ‘religious’ choices are regarded as private matters that are none of anybody’s business.
“Momo’s lectures on the unsurpassed beauty of Jewish women, among other topics,” continued Stein, “are especially risky given the trip’s reputation as a secular option for non-religious Jews.”
Some alumni shrugged off Lifshitz’s approach as simply part of the “price” participants must pay for a free trip to Israel. Others said the discomfort resulting from his speeches led to necessary debate regarding crucial Jewish issues.
“You have to expect that, while going on a free trip to Israel, you’re going to be encouraged to embrace Judaism, Israel and Jewish life,” said Evan Goldin, who went to Israel with Oranim in 2007. “It’s like going to one of those free breakfasts where people try to sell you a timeshare, and then raising a stink because someone’s talking about timeshares while you eat their food for free.”
Apart from what some see as Lifshitz’s hard sell on dating Jewish, some participants were put off by what they saw as his hard line on Israeli politics.
“The right-wing perspectives presented were rather unsettling, and the indoctrination was unappealing,” said a 23-year-old 2005 Oranim trip participant, who requested to remain anonymous due to his work at an American Jewish organization. “[Momo] spoke to our group, saying, ‘Some people say the Iraq war was good for Israel. Wrong. The Iraq war was great for Israel,’ representing a rather astonishingly narrow viewpoint.”
Lifshitz established Oranim Educational Initiatives 23 years ago, and in addition to Birthright programming — which began only in the last decade — the organization provides long-term trip internships, volunteer programs and educational opportunities.
As far as Birthright programming, however, Oranim officials say they have been responsible for nearly 50,000 of the total 215,000 Birthright participants since the free Israel trip’s inception in 2000. This summer alone, Lifshitz wrote, Oranim accounted for 70 percent of Birthright registrants, but only received seat allotments for 14 percent of his 12,000 applicants.
Birthright officials had determined this year that no one provider could bring more than 15 percent of the total participants, so as to provide more balance. This decision appeared to convince Lifshitz to pull out.
“I’m not leaving Birthright with happiness,” he told The Jewish Week by phone from Israel on Monday. He said he loved the project but was very upset over having to tell 10,000 registrants “that I could not take them” because of the new limits imposed on Oranim by Birthright.
Todd Edelman, director of marketing for Oranim Educational Initiatives, said Lifshitz wrote to the Oranim Birthright alumni of his decision on Monday “to clear the air on what was going on. It’s almost a moment of sadness,” he said.
By severing from Birthright Israel, Lifshitz will now effectively be turning down many more potential applicants than just the 10,000 he was frustrated about this summer. But he said he is confident that future Birthright participants will find other organizations that will eagerly provide them with trips.
Within the next few days, Birthright officials intend to announce that this winter’s trips will carry some 10,000 participants, about the same number as this summer, according to a source who works closely with Birthright Israel.
The source described Lifshitz as a former “small-time provider” who became very successful with the advent of Birthright, acknowledging that his aggressive marketing style attracted many participants. And a number of them became happy Oranim alumni who view his departure from Birthright as a low moment for the organization.
“What it comes down to is that Momo and Oranim have built up a strong reputation, especially among secular and Reform Jews,” said Stephen Robert Morse, a three-time Oranim trip leader and onetime participant. He argues that although another organization could technically “pick up the slack,” this would not be in the best interests of the participants — particularly the non-religious applicants who are simply interested in Israel.
“I enjoyed my experiences with Oranim because religion wasn’t forced down my throat,” Morse continued. “Instead, I learned about life in Israel, I made friends, I experienced nature and I partied.”
“The trip we took was one of the best I’ve taken in my life, and I have recommended Oranim to countless other people,” agreed Maxie Glass, who attended a trip two years ago and still remains close with many of her bus-mates. “No one I know speaks as highly of their Birthright experience as Oranim alumni.”
At this point, Oranim has decided only that it will call off trips for this winter, and there is no way to predict what will happen beyond that season, according to Lifshitz.
Whether or not Oranim comes back into the Birthright fold, one thing is clear — Momo will not be compromising his vision, according to Edelman, his colleague.
“He’s not going to change his ideology.”