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Birthright NEXT Partnership Here Is Misunderstood
Mon, 05/24/2010 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week

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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Show me the IPs!
It is so very convincing that everyone answered this piece the same way, even at a time when it hadn't been read by more than 150 people! Perhaps one of you "There was no pressure at all!" folks could publish the email the JEC sent you in its entirety, replete with instruction of what to combat in your comments? Thanks in advance, DK
To DK -- Your conspiracy theory claiming the JEC sent out an instructional email is fascinating -- and fairly easily disprovable. First, sending out an email like that would run the huge risk of some malcontent actually posting it! That would not be good. Second, did you notice that of the first seven posts there have not been any that are negative? (Except yours of course) How did the JEC pull that off? How exactly do you control the responses of the 150 who read the piece? Obviously, you can not. Therefore, I would like to suggest a question: Could it be that Mr. Steinhardt's praise and pride of the partnership with the JEC are in fact well placed? HMM ...
I am often told I should be a spokesperson for the JEC, being that when those 3 letters come up in any conversation, at any given time, I am found talking about the organization and all it has to offer, as if I was paid to promote it. The JEC was not just a 10 day trip for me to Israel. The trip, although a life changing experience, was only the stepping stone to my involvement with the JEC. I was fortunate enough to go on Reloaded in the summer of 2007. Led by incredible Rabbis and “counselors” who taught us throughout each day, I found myself eager to learn more and more about my religion. With endless questions arising in my mind about why certain laws exist, the history of Judaism, and the culture in itself, I was blessed to have 10 days filled with amazing leaders to answer each and every one of my questions. Upon returning from my first trip with the JEC, I knew I had to continue my steps, and learn more. I came back excited to grow, excited to formulate new questions, and excited to search for all of the answers. The JEC was the perfect place for this. I attended the Legacy program weekly, which led me to my second ten day trip back to Israel with the JEC. Returning for a second time, a year later, a year more in tuned with my religion, I was excited to return to the place that started my journey only a year prior. It was on this ten day journey, with 40 new faces, and new leaders, that I met Sara, someone who will forever change my life as a Jew. Sara and I instantly connected, when we first met at JFK airport awaiting our long plane ride to Israel. We boarded the plane with hundreds of others, to only walk to the same exact row and sit next to one another. On the trip, Sara connected with every woman and made a point to teach all topics we felt we wanted to learn. Her knowledge was endless, and each day, I gained more and more respect for all she knew. Sara’s energy, and love for Judaism was contagious. She took interest in our lives, as traditional Jews, and taught us about her life as an Orthodox Jew. It was the first time in my life, that I realized, although both Jewish, we both had so much to teach one another. We continued learning together in groups when we returned to NY. Sara taught us about the laws of marriage, dating, the weekly parashas, and so much more. She came prepared each week, and animated. Her energy continued to be contagious, and each time I left the JEC after learning with her, I felt as if we had just learned in the Old City of Jerusalem. Along with meeting with Sara, I attended JEC- U. The new program allowed for Legacy Graduates, like myself, to continue our steps, it allowed people like myself to learn more, grow more, and continue to find answers. Each week we were welcomed, and each week, no matter what was going on in the “real” world, when I was at the JEC, all of my outside stressors disappeared for the time. Although Sara has moved to California, I still continue to go to the JEC weekly. Sara was the light into my learning. She opened me up and exposed me to the basics of what I needed to know, the foundations of Judaism I did not learn as a child. The two trips were life changing. I know I am very blessed to have traveled to the most amazing place in the world with such an incredible organization. But, aside from the trips, going to 13th street each week, is a blessing in itself. It is a place to learn, to socialize, to grow. It is a place filled with people eager to share their knowledge, and a place filled with people like me eager to take their knowledge. It is a place on Shabbat that is filled with 100s of young adults eager to meet new people. It is a place on a Sunday filled with young professionals coming together to volunteer to help the elderly in our own city. It is a place that offers so much more than ten day trips, it offers answers, and most of all, it offers a place to grow as a Jew, no matter how high or how low your steps begin. Never have I ever felt any pressure to change my views or pushed to grow in a more rapid way. If anything, I have been told to take small steps, and do what I want to do. The JEC is NOT a place that pushes anything on you, if anything a place open to learn from secular Jews, and a place open to anyone and everything. It is very sad to me to learn that people would voice otherwise.
As a secular Jew who barely acknowledged my religious roots I skeptically accepted my "Birthright." I was raised Reform, went to Hebrew School, had a Bar Mitzvah and was confirmed. I was turned off to the religion after the many years spent in class. I decided to accept my trip to Israel at the last moment realizing that if I didn't go I would regret it for life. While on the trip I learned of the JEC and the Holocaust Mini Masters Program. Upon returning from Israel I felt a connection to it and my Jewish identity. I decided to pursue the mini masters program and was accepted into the class. I learned a lot about the Jewish people and our struggles throughout history. After experiencing the camps first hand I could not wait to return home and share my stories of Poland/Prague. On return from this trip I felt a real connection to my roots. I began attending other JEC classes on a regular basis and am looking forward to a return trip to Israel this summer. Not once did I feel any pressure from anyone to change my secular views and in fact was encouraged to practiced the religion at my comfort level. I continue my secular ways but am now open to and proud of my Jewish identity!! I would like to thank all the donors, rabbis and staff that continue keeping the JEC alive and a heart beat in our vibrant Jewish community.
If it wasn't for Birthright NEXT I wouldn't have met my wife. We now have a beautiful daughter who will be raised with strong sense of pride in her heritage. Birthright NEXT does amazing work and we are so grateful to Michael Steinhardt, Matt Mindell, Rebecca Sugar and the entire staff! Thank you!!!!
As a former participant of the JEC/Birthright NEXT NY, I was able to return to Israel one of the first Young Leadership trips, become part of the Young Philanthropists Circle, have a Bat Mitzvah and so much more all thanks to this ground breaking initiative. I agree 100% with Mr. Steinhardt and never in any time I spent at the JEC/ Birthright NEXT Programs did I feel as though I was being pressured to change who I was as a Jew or increase my level of religious observance. It really saddened me to hear people personally attack members of the staff I grew to know and love as friends. Like the Taglit-Birthright trips JEC/Birthright NEXT encouraged me to enhance my Judaism on my own terms not by trying to convince me to become more observant. So thankyou Mr. Steinhardt for not only helping to make it all happen but for finally presenting the truth about Birthright NEXT NY and its partnership with the JEC!
JEC/Birthright NEXT has provided me and a entire community of Jewish people with tremendous opportunities-opportunities of a lifetime. Because of this organization, I was able to see Israel, understand the land and culture, appreciate my religion for what it is, and connect with the land my forefathers came from. The people at JEC are not there to tell you what to believe. They are there to give you the facts about it all--the history, the culture, the background--and it is up to you to decide if you want to accept and believe. It is up to the individual to take those opportunities and bring them into your world. I enjoy events at the JEC, including Shabbat dinners, parties at different venues, and JEC-U classes. These have all given me wonderful opportunities to meet people in my age group that have similar values to myself. JEC-U classes are run by wonderful and insightful rabbis that, again, are there to give you the facts. They are there to tell you what the Torah says--not what you SHOULD believe. And everyone at JEC is very accepting of everyone else. Although many of us share the same values, we have all had different upbringings. There are some people that have grown up reformed, some conservative, some orthodox, etc. It is a place to feel comfortable and safe, to meet new people, to get the facts, to gain the knowledge, and to enrich your soul.
As a frequent participant of JEC/Birthright Israel NEXT events & classes, and as a Reform Jew, I completely agree with Mr. Steinhardt. I've heard negative comments made by friends, innocently repeating rumors they've heard about the reputation of the JEC, that are completely inaccurate. The JEC/Birthright Israel NEXT provides the Jewish community with the opportunity to take classes in various aspects of Jewish thought and Jewish culture with no orthodox proselytizing whatsoever. I have never felt like I was being pressured to change my lifestyle to become an orthodox Jew. Rather, the JEC & Birthright Israel NEXT makes me feel comfortable as a Jew--at whatever level of observance I choose--and enables me to grow as a member of the Jewish community by enriching my life with knowledge of Jewish thought and custom that one would often only be able to get by enrolling in a structured religious program. I recently went on the NEXT Reloaded trip in January, along with about 70 other Jews of varying levels of observance, and had a fantastic time. I can categorically say that, while my participation in Jewish learning and events has voluntarily increased, I was not pressured in any way to change my affiliation within the Jewish Community.
What a beautiful (and finally truthful) article about Birthright Israel Next in partnership with the JEC. I am a very fortunate recipient of a Birthright Israel trip in the summer of 2008. I am even more thankful to have an outlet to learn about Judaism as I am a first-generation American whose parents came from the ex-Soviet Union. I have been attending programs at the JEC since my first trip to Israel and while I am grateful to have gone to Israel for free, I am most appreciative of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah program and classes which offer the opportunity to learn. I never received a Jewish education and now I finally feel connected to my religion. I thank all the donors who make trips to Israel possible, but I send a larger thank you to those who envisioned a program to teach people like me. During my first trip to Israel, I fell in love with a place. Thanks to Birthright Israel Next/JEC, the inspiring Rabbis and amazing staff, I had the opportunity to return to Israel and during my second trip, I fell in love with a country, a culture, a tradition and a people that I finally felt connected to. Israel was no longer just a place; Israel is my home away from home.