Tel Aviv — Tucked into the rocky thickets of Mount Carmel in northern Israel, 43 American 20-somethings gathered in a hotel conference room to play a simple game — using their bodies as place markers, they lined up across the room according to how important they found dating Jews, and Jews alone.
At first, only four people stood on the “date Jews” side of the room. But when the question changed to marriage, four soon grew to 15. And when marriage changed to raising children Jewish, a good 15 more shuffled over.
“If I were going to raise my kids with a religion, I would want it to be Judaism,” said Matt Lakind, 29, from Hoboken, N.J., who had joined the trip with his girlfriend, Erica Roth. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t want them to have any religion, that’s all.”
A week later, after touring Israel from top to bottom, east to west and back again, his opinion changed. “Now coming here I can see there’s actually a whole ethnic culture to Judaism that has been harder to find in the past,” he said. “Now I understand why when people ask where I’m from, I will tell them: ‘I’m Jewish.’”
Lakind and Roth were participating in an inaugural free 10-day trip to Israel, sponsored by Oranim Educational Initiatives, and funded personally by the owner of the organization, Shlomo “Momo” Lifshitz. Though their trip followed an itinerary quite similar to that of the better-known Taglit-Birthright Israel, this 10-day journey was under the auspices of Oranim alone.
Lifshitz, 53, whose company had formerly operated about 25 percent of all Birthright trips, split with the organization last summer, due largely to what he called ideological differences. Birthright officials admitted at the time that they had received criticism from a number of participants who expressed dismay over Lifshitz’s hard-hitting drive to quell intermarriage, in particular his tagline — “make Jewish babies.” But they denied trying to squelch his message of marrying within the faith. Momo’s tagline has now morphed to “raise your children Jewish.”
“I said shalom to Birthright, and I wished them the best of luck,” Lifshitz told his new Israel arrivals during their opening session. “I cannot do that anymore; I have to do it my own way.”
This week 88 participants — who arrived on Dec. 28 entirely on Lifshitz’s tab (as did this reporter) — concluded their 10-day journeys around Israel, where they were separated into two groups, ages 25-30 and 22-24. A third bus, containing what Lifshitz calls “spring chickens” (18- to 21-year-olds), arrived on Jan. 4 for their own trip.
In all, Lifshitz’s out-of-pocket cost ran to $250,000 for the three buses. The Jewish Week traveled for 10 days with the oldest group, which contained 43 Americans (more than half of whom came from the New York area) as well as eight Israeli university students who joined the group midway through the trip. By providing trips to this older age group in particular — Birthright cuts off participation after age 26 — Lifshitz hopes to attract funding from a wide range of Jewish philanthropists who may or may not already donate funds to Birthright.
“Ages 18 and 19 are important, but this age is a bazillion times more important,” Lifshitz said, referring to the older cohort. For that same reason, he explained, he was bringing along Israeli university students in their 20s with the groups instead of Israel Defense Force soldiers, who range in age from 18 to 22.
Israeli participants, such as Tel Aviv University student Yiftach Shalit, supported Lifshitz’s idea to cater to this older group.
“I think they look at [Israel and the trip] in a more mature way,” said Shalit, 26, who grew up on a kibbutz in the north of Israel and is studying economics. “They’re not coming only for drinking and celebrating. I’ve been in a Taglit group in the past as a soldier twice, and I think they were focused more on celebrating and drinking, not on values and understanding the history.”
Rather than undergraduates, the group was made up of teachers, lawyers, dramatists and future physicians, as well as those negatively affected by the global economic downturn. They did enjoy a few nights out at clubs and bars, but that’s not why this group was here, participants said — to the delight of their Israeli peers.
“This whole experience — I love it,” said Shira Prigat, 26, a Tel Aviv University student and part-time bartender from Givatayim. “Everyone has been really excited about hiking. I’ve heard more enthusiastic comments about hiking than about clubbing, which really made me happy.”
Yaron Karmi, a 27-year-old Tel Aviv University student, added, “I think that bringing kids at 18 will give them much more enthusiasm, but I think bringing kids at 25 will give them much more wisdom.”
Now independent from Birthright’s authority, Oranim staff allowed these older participants more freedom than that accorded their Taglit peers, offering one completely free night in Tel Aviv, allowing co-ed rooming by mutual request only, and reducing room occupancy from three to two people.
“I’m not Birthright,” trip leader Yariv Ofer told The Jewish Week as the group walked through the Arab market of Old City, an activity not done on Birthright, with the Christian Quarter on the left and the Armenian Quarter on the right.
“[Birthright] is an amazing program,” said Ofer, who is director of educational programs at Oranim and insists that he does not see the two organizations as competitors. “The idea is to bring as many people as possible — we have the same causes [as Birthright]. Our only problem is the way the message is being given, and we ask for fair play.”
But the increased freedom given to Oranim participants came with a few catches. During their opening session, participants were exposed to a rendition of Lifshitz’s now-infamous “make Jewish babies” speech — but this time even more aggressively.
“Being part of this family gives you a duty,” Lifshitz told the group during the trip’s opening session. “You have no right, my dear friend, to cut the chain. You have to try to find Jewish love and do everything you can to make it happen. You can consider these trips as a matchmaking factory.”
The trips, in fact, did produce several different couples who intend to continue dating back in the United States.
“If you guys find your love on this trip and eventually get married … I’ll give you a great prize, a great reward. I’ll bring you back to Israel for a free honeymoon,” Lifshitz said, once again offering his honeymoon incentive that Birthright officials had previously banned. “So, again, do not wait for day 10.”
Despite his determination to reinforce his Jewish dating policy, Lifshitz acknowledged that marrying a Jew may not always be possible — but everyone, he explained, should raise their children Jewish.
“I know you cannot control love,” Lifshitz continued. “If you cannot control love, you must understand, you have to raise your children Jewish. That’s your call, that’s you. Each person that is sitting in this room has a duty to maintain your faith and keep it alive.”
Participants like 22-year-old Matt Garbis, who came on the trip with his older brother Jordan, left the room enthusiastic. “He echoed everything my parents and grandparents ever told me,” Garbis said.
But not everyone was enthusiastic about Momo’s speech.
“I expected worse — it’s not like he’s going to tie me down and make me have babies here,” said Noah Klas, 26. “If I had paid for this trip and I had to listen to his speech, that would be different.”
“I thought he was charming and gregarious — able to express his goals,” said Sydney Linder, 25. “I know I’m going to raise my children Jewish, but I don’t know if I’m going to marry Jewish — hearing about finding my husband here was a bit too much. It was a bit heavy-handed.”
Others were more critical but seemed not to be offended by the speech.
“As someone who doesn’t identify as Jewish, doesn’t want kids and hasn’t dated a Jewish girl, I wasn’t offended,” said Brad Goldstein, 26. “I don’t like preaching, so I find it more annoying than offensive. He’s saying you should fall in love, as long as it’s with a Jewish woman — I don’t buy it.”
Seven days later, Goldstein’s opinions remained the same. “I love the country, I love the trip, I love the people, but religion still doesn’t have any place in my life right now.”
Despite the seeming success of Lifshitz’s first post-Birthright trip, it remains unclear whether the Oranim free trips will continue this spring. Lifshitz is struggling to attract private donors to his new initiative. Thus far, he said, he has not secured funds, but he said he has a potential $2 million offer from an organization that would like to see trips broken down by careers and special interest groups. He would not name the organization.
“I don’t know anything about the future. People are very interested in what I’m doing. People appreciate what I’m doing,” Lifshitz told The Jewish Week on Sunday evening. “Am I going to be able to sponsor trips like this in this summer? I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do it.”
A new nonprofit organization called Israel360, hopes to raise money for new Israel initiatives like Oranim in the near future, particularly for the older age group like those in Oranim, for interfaith newlyweds and for high school students.
“We hope to leverage the extremely successful model of Birthright Israel with parts of the Jewish community that are outside the reach of Birthright Israel,” Israel360 Director Robert Socolof said, noting that Lifshitz and Oranim were influential in launching this new nonprofit.
Neither Lifshitz nor Socolof have made any concrete progress to date, but their supporters are hopeful that alumni efforts will bring the financial support required to continue these initiatives.
“Why wouldn’t it be financially feasible for an organization that’s offering this experience that no other organization is open to, at the fraction of the cost of past programs, to find funding?” added trip staff member Robert Rand. “Because the organizations are unique, I would think it’s very likely that there would be donors in common to both.”
Back in the hotel conference room deep in the mountains of Mount Carmel, participants had enjoyed the first full day of their trip, and what had started off as a simple question about dating Jewish had morphed into a full-fledged analytical debate of the issues set before them. Whether or not they intended to marry Jews, whether or not both their mothers and fathers were Jewish, they understood that day that their trip was going to be different.
Ofer, the trip leader, encouraged them to think further about their Jewish identities, adding, “The fact that you guys chose to come on this trip makes you much more Jewish than many of the Israelis who actually live here.”
Staff writer Sharon Udasin participated in an Oranim-led Birthright Israel trip in 2007, before joining The Jewish Week.