Michael Steinhardt on Birthright NEXT Partnership

by Michael Steinhardt

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 chair of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life and a founder of Birthright Israel.

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  1. Yeah Right says

    Pardon my French, but this is a load of crap.

    1. Steinhardt fails to disclose that Rebecca Sugar is his goddaughter and that JEC’s contract is a sweetheart deal with a family friend.

    2. In the last couple of years, the JEC has hosted conservative speakers like John Bolton and Dick Morris, as well as insurance company execs to talk about why health care reform is bad and Christian Evangelicals to extol why they’re better Zionists than liberal Jews.

    3. The Jewish Enrichment Center was established as “an outreach affiliate” of Ohr Somayach, an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva in Israel which brags about getting kids to indefinitely postpone college in order to become unemployable black hatters.

    If this sort of shtuyos is the greatest Jewish educational opportunity of our time, our current Jewish educational opportunities blow harder than a hurricane.

  2. pretty sad says

    So the point of this bloviation is to swear up and down the the event you’re having are not, never have been and never will be anything close to orthodox? Wow, that’s sad.

  3. Dave Neil says

    To the previous comment “Yeah Right” i am shocked by your tone-

    How dare you write to Michael Steinhardt a man who has done so much for helping the Jewish People and initiate and fund Birthright and so many other projects.

    Even if you disagree with some of the programming that has taken place under Birthright Next, your tone, lack of respect and lack of gratitude and rudeness discloses that the REAL TRUTH cannot be coming from you.

    I live in Israel and have nothing to do with Birthright or any knowledge of Birthright Next but from reading both the article and your comment i am ABSOLUTELY sure you are wrong and Mr. Steinhardt (G-d bless him) is right.


  4. The Loxist says

    “The greatest Jewish educational opportunity of our time,” huh? That’s an awfully large challenge you’ve given yourself, Michael and I think under that kind of expectation you are sure to fail. Just like the Movements have failed to provide cradle-to-grave institutional structures for Jewish upbringing, Birthright Israel cannot provide the GPS out of Egypt from its castle in New York City.

    First of all, I don’t see what the “I’M AN ATHEIST” sentiment accomplishes here. I get it, you don’t have to believe in G-d to be a mentsh. The big Bronfman has proven that ten times over. But just because you don’t believe in G-d doesn’t mean you know what we need in an education (see: matchmaking) program. And just because you have to answer to the money of an Orthodox funder doesn’t mean that you have the blessing of G-d. It just means that your hands are tied when it comes to exploring certain avenues.

    The BI:Next model is a good model. Pay fellows around the country to conduct programming for their peers. It’s tried and true but it lacks continuity and is encumbered by turnover. It also is unclear how long your opportunity window extends to. Does someone have to go on Birthright to go to programs with BI:Next? What if someone is ineligible, uninterested or incapable of making the trip? I know socially awkward and mentally restricted individuals who have not been accepted on Birthright trips because there is an undemocratic “filter” on the program. Do they get to experience your “greatest Jewish opportunity”?

    When your eyes are bigger than your stomach, you end up puking up the same food that’s been on the plate for years.