To reconnect Jews worldwide with their faith, Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, formerly of New York’s Lincoln Square Synagogue, founded the National Jewish Outreach Program in 1987. Prominent hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt donated $1.5 million to jumpstart the organization that helps Jews rediscover the principles of Judaism and learn how to engage in Jewish ritual.
Steinhardt, the world’s most famous Jewish atheist, perhaps thought NJOP was focused too heavily on religion. In 1999 he rallied millionaire Charles Bronfman to create an alternate heritage program called Birthright Israel. They have hosted 400,000 young Jews on free 10-day tours of Israel that hopefully will rekindle their interest in Jewish life and history. “Making secular Jews proud to be Jews is an extraordinary thing,” Steinhardt said.
Buchwald attracted other philanthropists, most notably real estate maven Sam Domb. At the 25th annual NJOP dinner this month, Epstein honored Domb as NJOP’s largest single contributor, having given or raised $3 million.
“I want to correct you, rabbi,” Domb declared. He pulled a check from his pocket and declared, “The total amount is now $3,100,000.”
Domb has rescued several New York synagogues from disrepair and helped one Jew after another rediscover the routine observance of Jewish faith. He is not deterred that his goal might be unattainable. He illustrated with a story about a boy on the beach who picked up one starfish after another and tossed it back in the water. “What are you doing?’ a man asked. “I’m saving the starfish,” the boy said. “But you can’t save them all,” the man said. “You see this one?” the boy said. “This one I saved.”
Buchwald invited Steinhardt to engage in an after-dinner conversation which quickly morphed into a theological smackdown moderated by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.
Telushkin, the notable author/lecturer, granted that Steinhardt, the avowed Jewish atheist, is “very concerned about the survival of the Jewish people.”
Sitting in the middle of the two rabbis, Steinhardt offered a history lesson: “Being an atheist and being a good Jew is not inconsistent. Israel has a very large number of atheists. A very substantial number of our coreligionists have been atheists – Freud and Einstein among them.”
Some 300 guests held their breath as Steinhardt went on: “You don’t have to believe in the Red Sea parting – that’s meshugas. You don’t have to believe in a god that sits on a cloud.”
Rabbi Buchwald countered with a forewarning: “You have to be passionate about your Judaism. If you’re passionate your children will wind up moderate. If you’re moderate your children will wind up casual. If you’re casual you will wind up, Gd forbid, with Episcopalian grandchildren.”
The evening ended on a high note as it was announced that the dinner raised $1.1 million for the National Jewish Outreach Program whose many religious projects include the wildly popular Shabbat Across America, beginners minyanim and Hebrew crash courses.