Michael Steinhardt is never satisfied.
That’s what drives some of those who work with him crazy at times. But it’s also what drives his success as a businessman and major philanthropist.
While much of the Jewish community, here and in Israel, has been heralding birthright israel — the audacious project he helped found to give every young Jew in the world a free trip to Israel — as the most exciting and successful of efforts to increase Jewish identity, Steinhardt has been grumbling that it’s not enough.
Taking part in a panel the other night at the JCC in Manhattan on “Israel, The Jews and The Press: Exploding the Myths,” my colleagues — Clyde Haberman of The New York Times and Sam Freedman of the Columbia Journalism School and the Times — and I felt like we were in a time warp.
Jerusalem — I attended the biggest Mega-Event ever for Birthright Israel last Sunday night, with 7,500 screaming participants gathered at an outdoor amphitheater near here, and my ears are still ringing.
Petra, Jordan — At a conference here one day last week I had informal, friendly chats with more than a dozen people, including an American Nobel laureate in chemistry; a young man from Saudi Arabia in full native dress who is a student at MIT; the former headmaster of the New England prep school that King Abdullah II of Jordan attended (who is now, at the request of the king, heading a new boarding school in Jordan modeled after the American one); a British expert on mapping the mind; and a veteran columnist for Al-Hayat, a major Arab daily owned by the Saudis.
Looking through my notes from dozens of interviews and from several conferences I attended in Israel last month, I came across a quote from Jerusalem-based venture capitalist Erel Margalit that seemed to jump out at me, crystallizing my findings.
“There’s a synergy when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” he told me. “But we have the opposite in Israel. We have amazing people doing amazing things, but leadership here — the ability to give it all meaning — is lacking.”
Rabbi Benjamin (Benny) Lau does not look the part of a revolutionary.
At 47, his youthful appearance, warm smile and engaging personality have helped him become a popular Orthodox rabbinic figure in Jerusalem, where he has revitalized the Ramban community synagogue in Katamon and heads the beit midrash program at Beit Morasha, a communal and educational leadership institute for observant men and women.
Please stop writing out against us,” read the e-mail message I received recently from someone who identified himself as Chaim, a local haredi man, pleading with me not to be “the lackey for people who have no idea what Torah is. Please.”
I responded to his e-mail with one of my own, and before I knew it we were back and forth in an exchange I’ve found both fascinating and frustrating.
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