Last week, the amphitheater at Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus Campus in Jerusalem was filled to capacity for a very special Birthright Israel Mega Event. If you’ve never been to one, a Mega Event brings together dozens of groups of Birthright Israel trip participants from around the world for a fun night of music, dancing and speeches by Israeli politicians, philanthropists and assorted luminaries. There’s lots of flag waving and cheering, with boisterous South Americans and exuberant Americans lending a very festive air to the whole affair. It’s really something to see!
This particular Mega Event was a little different however. The main purpose of the evening was to honor Michael Steinhardt, who along with Charles Bronfman, helped co-found Taglit Birthright Israel. Steinhardt was stepping down as Chairman of the Birthright Israel Foundation and guests had assembled in order to show their appreciation for the man whose vision helped create one of the most audacious Jewish initiatives ever. I’m not kidding. If you know me, you know I can be fairly cynical. I think the term “audacious” is a perfectly appropriate descriptor for a program that has in 14 years, brought over 350,000 young Jews from over 65 different countries for a free 10-day trip to Israel. And let us not forget the over 65,000 Israeli soldiers and students who joined the participants for part of their trips. But for Steinhardt’s vision and bulldozer-like tenacity, Birthright Israel may have never happened. And so, the crowd gathered on a pleasantly cool Jerusalem evening to party and say thanks to the man that was instrumental in so many life altering experiences for young Jews.
Providing entertainment was the usual crew of Israeli dancers as well as rapper Shai 360. The Israeli government was represented by Finance Minister and head of the Yesh Atid political party, Yair Lapid who breathlessly exclaimed that “Taglit-Birthright Israel has saved the next generation of Jews around the world.” The next part of the program featured a short film wherein Steinhardt as well as his friends and family were interviewed. What emerged was a warm, loving and at times humorous portrait of a driven and passionate man, a tad obsessed with getting Jews to marry Jews and have babies. Of course Birthright Israel is much more than that – it’s an exercise in Jewish peoplehood, an illuminating educational experience, but still. I sat next to a couple who was making out during the speeches and I couldn’t help but chuckle because I knew Steinhardt would heartily approve.
As for the speeches Charles Bronfman introduced Michael Steinhardt and his gracious wife Judy. Both spoke about their involvement in Jewish philanthropy and Birthright Israel, following which they received an award from a group of Taglit alumni. At that point, no less than Israeli superstar Ivri Lider and his band took to the stage to perform a cross section of their hits in both English and Hebrew. When Steinhardt sat down, he was immediately surrounded by scores of trip participants. Most simply wanted the opportunity to thank him while others, I know for a fact because I was right there, wanted to know if he had a shidduch for them.
It was getting late and before Lider finished his set to a massive throng of dancing Birthright Israel trip participants, Michael Steinhardt and his entourage took leave. Most of them didn’t even notice but then again, I don’t think Steinhardt minded. Clearly everyone was there to celebrate Michael Steinhardt, the great co-founder of Taglit Birthright Israel. But Michael? Michael was there for the kids and as long as they were doing their thing, he was clearly pleased.
David Abitbol is the founder of Jewilicious.com.