An Entirely (Surprising?) Other Side of Birthright Rights

by Marc Belzberg

I warmly applaud Stephen Muss for his well-argued and, in my view, eminently justified plea on behalf of the birth-rights of Diaspora high school age Jewish teens to a meaningful Israel learning experience at least in equal measure with their college and post-college age counterparts (in his February 7, 2011 opinion piece: “The Other Right of Birthright”). I wholeheartedly wish every success to Lapid, the new Coalition for High School Age Programs in Israel and have every hope that it will be adopted by Birthright’s visionary funders as part and parcel of their program, equally worthy of their support.

As a Diaspora public school kid myself some decades ago from Vancouver, Canada, my high school and college age Israel experiences were powerfully formative in terms of the Jewish direction of my life – that has included the choice to live here in Israel with my wife and children for the last 18 years. During that time I have had the opportunity to observe from up close, a staggering problem here that presents a serious challenge to the unspoken assumptions both of the Birthright sponsors and of the Lapid Coalition.

Mr. Muss referred to the amazing impact upon 300,000 Birthright participants of “concentrated exposure to Israelis and Israeli life” and the 500,000 teens who have “experienced Israel through a Lapid program.” It would seem that Israel is somehow guaranteed to remain the magic center-stage attraction of Jewish life … all Diaspora young adults need to do is get a physical injection of this place and voila! As if the stones and the antiquities somehow ooze Jewish-ness that is to be absorbed by osmosis. And as if the Jewish – and even Israeli – identity and commitments of the Jews who live here are somehow guaranteed and can be taken for granted.

In the decade or so before the “big idea” of Birthright, I recall a serious understanding in the world of North American Jewish philanthropy of the importance of contributing toward Jewish identity for (for want of better terms…) Jewishly disconnected and disaffected Israelis. The problem has only broadened and deepened. And it’s not only about Jewish identity. Today many of Israel’s young people question whether they will stay in Israel and wonder why they should risk their lives fighting for this country. Draft and combat evasion are serious problems – and I’m not talking about the ultra-Orthodox. Jewish – and fundamental Israeli – identity and commitment are in question and the future (not to mention the Jewish future) of the Jewish state can in no way be taken for granted.

I have had the amazing privilege, with the help and support of the Belzberg Family Foundation, friends, colleagues and visionary philanthropists, of founding and chairing “Mibereshit – The Foundation for Jewish Renaissance,” which has for the last 9 years devoted its energies to reversing these troubling trends through high impact, informal Jewish educational programs in Israeli public schools. Our flagship project, Masa Yisraeli – An Israeli Roots Journey, has offered what can aptly be described as a 6-day Birthright-like experience to 60,000 grade 11 students (since 2006). The program has created innovative tools for how to provide new lenses – and enhanced vision – to teens that have grown up here with at best a fuzzy and uninspired view of where they live. The project has made such a profound impact on the country that the Israel Defense Forces asked for a parallel program for its officers and commanders in training several years ago and now thousands participate annually.

The Government of Israel – through its Ministries of Education and Defense – is our partner in this undertaking. But it is a huge undertaking – because for every dollar it contributes – we need to raise two more. We are deeply indebted to the Jim Pattison Foundation, United Israel Appeal of Canada, The Genesis Philanthropy Group, The Claims Conference and Friends of the IDF, whose support has seeded and helped keep this initiative afloat. But we are far from having achieved sustainability. A similar line-up to that quoted by Mr. Muss of “Who’s Who in organized Israeli and Jewish life” have likewise wholeheartedly endorsed the Masa Yisraeli – An Israeli Roots Journey project and offered their every support – with the notable exception of the financial kind in too many cases. We certainly have a challenge here to garner meaningful support on the part of Israel’s leading economically advantaged families, most of whom have already had a child, niece, nephew or grandchild benefit from the program. And we are busy taking that challenge seriously. But at the same time, with the Israeli government significantly contributing to Birthright, its mega-funders need to consider reframing the parameters of the venture.

I recall a provocative comment on the topic of Birthright recently made by Barry Shrage, the CEO of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston: “People are looking for the next big thing; we ain’t finding no other big thing at this level.” I would posit on the basis of the unity principle (i.e. the very Jewish idea of seeking unity in general AND the cardinal value of the unity of the Jewish people) that we funders need to recognize that we don’t need a new “big thing” at all. We need to strategically join hands, combine efforts and fine-tune the big picture of our similar, separate versions of a very-on-the-mark “big thing” by jointly securing the birthright of the entire Jewish people. This includes Diaspora teens, college age and 20-something young adults, as well as Israeli 11th grade and army-stage Jews – all at pivotal junctures in their – hopefully Jewish life-choices.

Yes, indeed. I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Muss: “Forces need to be joined so that together, we will truly revolutionize young Jews…” However, not merely “… around the Diaspora.” But also here – in our national birthplace – with its birthright too. Mr. Muss, I certainly hope that we will find a way to programmatically interface your Diaspora high school teens with ours and the college age Birthright young adults with our Masa Yisraeli soldiers … they each need the other – as do we.

Marc Belzberg, Chairman of the Board of Mibereshit – The Foundation for Jewish Renaissance.