Mayor Bloomberg, a surprise guest at Birthright Israel’s New York City Mega Event last night (May 4), tried to impress the sell-out audience at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater with his Hebrew, greeting them with “mah nishmah?” (loosely, “what’s up?”).
But he botched it by emphasizing the first rather than the second syllable in “nishmah.”
Kind of like host Zach Braff, the cute actor from the TV show “Scrubs,” telling the crowd that the only Hebrew song he knows is “eelu eelu hotziyanu,” apparently unaware that snatch of text is from the Seder favorite better known as “Dayenu.”
But hey, the evening was not about deep Hebraic knowledge. It was about connection to Israel – and that connection was evident from the hundreds of Birthright alumni and major donors on hand to celebrate the success of the program, which offers a ten-day free trip to 18 to 26 year olds throughout the diaspora.
Ido Aharoni, Israel’s Consul General in New York, called Birthright “the most important thing happening in American Jewish life,” and who’s to argue with that?
Gidi Mark, international CEO of Taglit (Birthright) in Jerusalem, announced that “the buses started arriving four days ago,” with the first participants of the 20,000 expected in Israel this summer, 15,000 of them from the U.S.
In all, 35,000 young people will be on Birthright trips this year, according to Dan Och, chair of the Birthright Israel Foundation.
As evidence of the project’s popularity and the frustration in not being able to accommodate all who seek to go, 45,000 young people applied when registration opened on Feb. 14, and 30,000 had to be turned away. But Birthright officials say that with increased funding from its partners – American philanthropists, Federations and the Israeli government, which tripled its allocation to almost $40 million this year – more than 51 percent of all eligible diaspora Jews will take part in the trip by 2013.
Birthright co-founders Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt welcomed the enthusiastic crowd before the entertainment segment began. Bronfman noted with pride that 300,000 participants, including 50,000 Israelis, have benefited from the program since it began less than 11 years ago.
Steinhardt couldn’t resist a jab at the Establishment, asserting that Birthright represents a stark contrast to the rest of Jewish institutional life, which he described as “archaic and mundane.”
He urged the audience to engage in “Jewish joy,” which they did for the rest of the evening, highlighted by the performance of the Idan Raichel Project, a popular Israeli band known for its fusion of electronic, Middle Eastern and Ethiopian music. The seven musicians and three (barefoot) singers had the crowd on their feet and dancing in place.
Earlier, the Chasidic rapper Matisyahu offered a low-key performance, accompanied by a solo guitarist, and the Maccabeats, from Yeshiva University, worked their a cappela charm.
Mayor Bloomberg proclaimed May as Birthright Israel Month in New York, so presumably the celebration will continue for several more weeks.