As a longtime supporter of programming for Birthright Israel alumni and a current member of the Birthright Israel NEXT board of directors, I feel compelled, as I work with board chair Al Levitt and my friend Lynn Schusterman, to advance NEXT and its vision, to set the record straight about our largest and most long-running alumni program here in New York.
Our New York alumni office has been growing substantially since we created it seven years ago. At the time, funding for this important element of the Birthright Israel experiment was scarce. I had few real partners in this work even as Birthright Israel was being criticized for its failure to conduct follow-up. It was businessman and philanthropist Aaron Wolfson who called my office and extended an offer to work with me and to provide serious funding. As we sat together, a secular Jew and an Orthodox Jew, we debated the existence of God, but not the need for substantial efforts to transform the alumni experience for the then thousands of alumni of Birthright Israel in the area.
Aaron and I entered into a partnership with the Jewish Enrichment Center, a small operation capably led by a qualified and devoted Jewish professional, Matt Mindell. We hired a staff and expanded our alumni office to become what is today: the most vibrant, far-reaching and effective Birthright Israel alumni community in the country. Today we call it Birthright Israel Next, NY; it operates in partnership with the Jewish Enrichment Center and is directed by Rebecca Sugar.
Together, our partnership has led to innovative and impactful programming, such as a bar and bat mitzvah program, the Young Philanthropists Committee, return trips to Israel, a Holocaust studies course, Hebrew lessons, the widely popular NEXT Shabbat program and more. The New York office averages four to five events per week, with offerings as diverse as the population of 4,000 individual young alumni it serves annually. We have worked creatively with Jewish communal organizations of all stripes: from the Council of Young Jewish Presidents, to Friends of the Israel Defense Forces; from the Jewish Book Council and the Israeli Consulate, to Dorot and Artists 4 Israel. Indeed, our list of partners is long.
For some time now, journalists, bloggers, Jewish communal leaders and others have attempted to paint our activities as “controversial,” “Orthodox” and disconnected from the rest of Jewish communal life. None of these characterizations describe our programming or our vision, and they are disturbingly offered by those without any knowledge of our work. Rabbis and writers alike lament the state of programs they have never attended. These views lack the credibility they have been given in some Jewish circles and the space on the page they have been offered by some Jewish publications. I challenge all those who accuse our work of being “religious” or “Orthodox” in nature to attend an event before defining it.
This partnership between myself, an atheist, and Aaron Wolfson, an Orthodox Jew, in what I view as the greatest Jewish educational opportunity of our time, brings me great pleasure and satisfaction because it has so clearly worked. I ask those who seem all too eager to define us unfairly to see the great relevance of the unlikely pairing that we represent and to acknowledge the accomplishments of our New York office for what they are, not what they are rumored to be. As we expand our work now over the coming months and years with the help of our new CEO, a fresh and fair look should be taken at what has already been successful, even as we seek to do more.
Michael Steinhardt is a philanthropist and founder of Birthright Israel.
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