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New York - OpEd: New Year’s Resolution For Secular Jews -- Support Birthright To A Jewish Education Instead Of Birthright Israel

Published on: January 2, 2014 11:00 AM
By: Ezra Friedlander
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FILE - A group of American students visit Israel trough a Birthright sponsorshipFILE - A group of American students visit Israel trough a Birthright sponsorship

New York - Jewish philanthropists:  I offer a New Year’s Resolution that can potentially change the face of American Jewry for decades. Create a Birthright to a Jewish education.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on Birthright Israel, the program that sends Jewish young adults on a ten day educational trip to Israel in order to deepen their commitment to their Jewish identity.  But fourteen years after the program was launched, not much has changed.  It’s time for the folks who are funding Birthright to realize that their hearts are in the right place, but their pocketbooks aren’t.

Birthright began in December 1999, when Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt pledged $210 million towards the initiative.  Since then, over 330,000 participants have joined the program.  And while the results have certainly been positive, the reality is that their commitment to Judaism doesn’t seem to last very long. 

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According to a study called, A Mega experiment in Jewish Education—The Impact of Birthright Israel, participants certainly seem to feel more connected with Israel and Judaism.  “More than a year after they return home,” it finds, “their attitudes and engagement in the Jewish community were different”. 

The study continues, “…a clear involvement in Jewish ritual and activities did not increase dramatically.”  This leads the researchers to conclude that: “The success of the program poses a challenge for the Jewish community.  The community now needs to find ways to transform participants’ inspiration and motivation into Jewish commitment.”

FILE - An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man attends a computer course. ReutersFILE - An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man attends a computer course. Reuters

In my opinion, Birthright was a good start, but as the study sadly concludes, it is equivalent to placing a Band-Aid on a patient who really needs major surgery.  According to the recent Pew study, assimilation is rampant. The Jewish community is bleeding way too heavily for Birthright to make a major lasting impact. It is time for visionaries in the mold of Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt to step up to the plate and really invest in saving the Jewish nation. After long thought and discussion with accomplished Jewish activists around the country, I am proposing a new program and calling it, “Birthright to a Jewish Education.”

An authentic Jewish education is oxygen for the Jewish soul. All Jewish children deserve to know and understand their heritage. That education will inspire them to learn, to grow, to build, to dream and as history has shown, all of society, not just the Jewish community, will benefit from such citizens.

The opportunity to send a child to a Jewish school from kindergarten through twelfth grade should be available to every Jewish family who understands the tremendous risk of ignoring such opportunities and the immeasurable rewards of seizing the moment.  Developing a strong sense of Jewish identity is the key to sustaining the Jewish faith in ever more secular America. 

FILE - Young Jewish adults from all over the world participating in the Taglit Birthright program celebrate 10 years of the Birthright program at an event held at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem.  Flash90FILE - Young Jewish adults from all over the world participating in the Taglit Birthright program celebrate 10 years of the Birthright program at an event held at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem.  Flash90

This education must be financed by an entity called Birthright to a Jewish Education which will be a designated central fund. This endowment fund should be managed with the highest ethical standards with oversight by a board of Americas most respected and trusted philanthropists and should be parent-driven via a voucher system which they will receive directly and control entirely in terms of which Jewish school it is designated to.  Preference should be given primarily to those who are in the greatest danger of denying themselves the right to a Jewish education as well as those who are lowest on the socio-economic ladder.

This concept should and could work, as long as it remains both apolitical and non-denominational as a policy of criteria for eligibility. Jewish parents across the spectrum should have a choice as to the type of education they prefer for their children.  For full disclosure, I personally subscribe to what Rabbi Moshe Sherer, a quintessential Jewish leader of his time, lamented in an essay on assimilation, “A Judaism based solely on sentiment and memory cannot provide the spiritual sustenance to preserve generations to come…. Only a Judaism rooted in the Tree of Life emanating from Sinai can offer the spiritual food to sustain future generations”. Realistically, this effort will only be universally accepted if the parent dictates which school the child will attend hence all Jewish schools will be eligible for funding. That said, today it is the Orthodox model that is at the forefront of stemming Jewish assimilation as confirmed by the Pew Research Center.

FILE -  Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men study at Jerusalem's Mir Yeshiva, the largest Jewish seminary in Israel July 4, 2012.  ReutersFILE -  Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men study at Jerusalem's Mir Yeshiva, the largest Jewish seminary in Israel July 4, 2012.  Reuters

We are losing thousands of children every year.  Every child should have the opportunity to an authentic Jewish education, one that their parents might have been denied. The stakes are simply too high to ignore any longer. For the first time we are also witnessing parents send their child to a public school from a day school out of financial constraints—this is simply unacceptable!

For those, like myself, who spend considerable time outside the protective bubble of Boro Park and Williamsburg, it is painful to watch as the secular community rapidly diminishes.  Secular Jews who received even a quasi Jewish education have kept some sort of faith based identity.  Those that were deprived of a basic Jewish education may be lost forever.  Birthright Israel was a noble idea, but the notion that a ten day trip will provide the antidote to the spiritual Holocaust taking shape across America is naïve, and insulting to all of us who care deeply about Jewish continuity and indeed proving ineffective.

Wherever there are emerging or established Jewish communities, one will find thriving Yeshivas and Day Schools. Visit the communities of Passaic NJ, Scranton PA, Milwaukee WI, Dallas, TX, Silver Spring MD, Denver, Colorado, Phoenix, AZ and you will witness scores of school buses filled with children en route to Jewish schools every morning. In these areas, Jewish identity and Jewish investment is flourishing.  There is no reason why others cannot duplicate this success. It is a matter of commitment, and yes, funding.

FILE photo Ramza Yeshivah (facebook)FILE photo Ramza Yeshivah (facebook)

Instead, I suggest that the Jewish community takes the limited successes of Birthright and really invest in a plan to save the next generation of American secular Jews.  I believe there is enough funding available within the community to subsidize a program on the scale I am proposing.

For those who feel that I’m dreaming, I assure you that the money is there.  According to Forbes Israel, there are currently a total of 165 Jewish billionaires around the world with a combined wealth of $812 billion.  Many of these billionaires do support a variety of Jewish programs and activities, but not Jewish education.  Holocaust memorials and museums and even Birthright are all extremely admirable ventures, but they do nothing to stem the tide of assimilation. 

FILE - Ezra Friedlander, CEO The Friedlander Group in a discussion with Sheldon Adelson. Adelson is one of the biggest financial supporters of BirthrightFILE - Ezra Friedlander, CEO The Friedlander Group in a discussion with Sheldon Adelson. Adelson is one of the biggest financial supporters of Birthright

One example is Sheldon Adelson. According to Forbes magazine, “his total wealth is estimated at $37 billion. In fact, Mr Adelson’s net worth soared $15 billion in 2013, making him the billionaire who made the most money this year”. Although Adelson is very active in Jewish philanthropy, (for example he funds Birthright along with a Jewish school The Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Educational Campus in Las Vegas), I am sad to report that when I approached Mr. Adelson about funding Birthright to a Jewish Education, he made it very clear in no uncertain terms that he is opposed to the idea—when I tried to enter into a dialogue he refused.

I am still hopeful that I can turn him around on this. While Adelson’s funding of Birthright Israel among other Jewish philanthropies is to commended,  it does not have the wide reaching effect that Birthright to a Jewish Education could.  The news further abounds with recent major acts of philanthropy by Jewish donors. Mark Zuckerburg, the Facebook founder worth over 18 billion, recently donated 100 million to the Newark School district. Ronald Perelman, a major Jewish philanthropist, recently donated 50 million to an NYU hospital. The aforementioned are all extraordinary acts of charity, but imagine how effective it would be had those contributions been matched and earmarked for Jewish Education.

FILE - Young Ultra Orthodox Jewish school girls in, Brooklyn, New York City. March 21, 2012. Photo by Serge Attal/FLASH90FILE - Young Ultra Orthodox Jewish school girls in, Brooklyn, New York City. March 21, 2012. Photo by Serge Attal/FLASH90

Years ago, the brilliant sage Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik told a renowned Jewish philanthropist, “Mr. Bronfman, remember that the Jewish people were created for more than fighting anti-Semitism.” Are we so busy defending ourselves from our enemies and promoting US-Israel relations that we have failed to recognize the basic requirement of educating our young?  While we are all overwhelmed with our day to day activities have we possibly overlooked our enormous responsibility to the next generation and Jewish continuity? If so, how can we continue to neglect this?

I am not remotely pretending to address all the issues, logistics and otherwise. The sole intention here is start a conversation and encourage caring and committed Jews from all backgrounds to face the harsh realities facing us as a people, now before it is too late. Let’s change the face of American Jewry by ensuring that all of our children are educated and inspired to be proud of their Jewish identity.  I’m willing to discuss my plan and my ideas with those who are willing to rise to the challenge.

A worthy New Year’s resolution to consider indeed.

Ezra Friedlander is the CEO of The Friedlander Group, a public policy group based in New York City and Washington DC. He can be reached by email at ezra@thefriedlandergroup.com 



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Read Comments (34)  —  Post Yours »

1

 Jan 02, 2014 at 11:12 AM Anonymous Says:

what a fantastic idea!! however i believe it should be geared towards non religious and non affiliated jews. most orthodox people send their kids to jewish school anyway (yeshiva or day school), this program should reach out to those who don't give their kids a jewish eduction.
in the city where i grew up, most non religious and non affiliated jews sent their kids to jewish day schools, even though these kids didn't keep shabbos/kosher etc, they still understood what makes them jewish.

i hope he can pull it off...

2

 Jan 02, 2014 at 11:16 AM SandmanNY Says:

When the People of the Book lose their connection to the Book, the eventually lose their connection to the People. Sof pasuk.

3

 Jan 02, 2014 at 11:31 AM PINNY Says:

Finally an idea that makes sense! VERY WELL THOUGHT OUT! AND WHAT I LIKE MOST IS THAT IT IS TOTALLY INCLUSIVE EBN THOUGH THE WRITER IS PERSONALLY ORTHODOX.

WHO IS MR. FRIEDLANDER?

4

 Jan 02, 2014 at 11:44 AM klonimus Says:

Why not with the frum philanthropists like Wolfson, Kleinman, Rechnitz etc...? Wouldn't they more value torah education?

Its very unlikely that a non religious person is going to fund an educational system that preaches intolerance and hatred of him and his values its students.

5

 Jan 02, 2014 at 11:50 AM Trachtglat Says:

Reply to #2  
SandmanNY Says:

When the People of the Book lose their connection to the Book, the eventually lose their connection to the People. Sof pasuk.

Very well said.

6

 Jan 02, 2014 at 11:58 AM Maven Says:

Excellent article, Mr Friedlander.
Its worth while knowing the father of Mr. Bronfman had a deep hatred to observant Jews and many in the Bronfman family intermarried.
They really have no interest secular Jews to become observant fearing they might become frum.As much as you will try pandering to secular Jewish philanthropist you wont convince them that orthodox Jews are good people. Secular Jews have a much deeper hatred toward Orthodox Jews then orthodox Jews to secular Jews.

7

 Jan 02, 2014 at 12:02 PM Anonymous Says:

This would be amazing but should be focused on only those families who are seriously at risk of assimilation, including the non frum. Frum families will realize the importance of scrimping and saving for yeshiva and will send them anyways. To have the biggest impact and to stem intermarriage rates you need to focus on those who have a real chance at intermarriage. Not chassidim, yeshivish or "regular" orthodox families- very few of our graduates intermarry and that's the basis for the whole idea!

8

 Jan 02, 2014 at 12:03 PM Liepa Says:

Well said, the future of our brethren, the future of B'nai Yisroel is at stake here!

9

 Jan 02, 2014 at 12:06 PM Anonymous Says:

While it is truly a blessing to fund jewish education, you might want to rehash your approach to the "millionaires". It might be better for them to Learn Torah themselves than to just fund another person's book fare. But it might be a good time to reverse the discrimination of the little communities that think that the only way to be a "good jew" is to go to Israel and firm your "footing". Israel itself is not the mainstay of every jewish experience when Torah is the Real Jewish Footing.

10

 Jan 02, 2014 at 12:56 PM &Mrs; AmHaAretz Says:

A healthy antidote to Mr. Woody Allen might also be helpful:
"There's a lot of Jewish content in popular media today, but I'm not interested in things...where Jews are schlemiels or victims...We are also warriors, we win Nobel Prizes, we create movements, we created the movie business. We're storytellers with a lot of stories to tell, and...we should celebrate our contributions and not feel ashamed."
– Moshe Paul Mones, actor/writer/director/producer

11

 Jan 02, 2014 at 01:04 PM Anonymous Says:

What kind of a jewish education are we talking about? It varies throughout the spectrum. It's a shame that Adelson wouldn't donate to Yeshivas. At his age he's seen a lot and I'm sure he has seen the ill effects of assimilation.

12

 Jan 02, 2014 at 01:30 PM FmrBklynKid Says:

Send a bunch of non-affiliated Jewish kids to yeshivas. That will turn them to Judaism, alright.

13

 Jan 02, 2014 at 01:31 PM Anonymous Says:

Most of the participants in Birthright, have no desire to ever attend a yeshiva.

14

 Jan 02, 2014 at 01:36 PM Anonymous Says:

My friend teaches in a yeshiva in Monsey. The kids learn no English, math or science. How will it be possible for them to get a job if they can't read, write or add? A Jewish education is not enough to survive. I feel everyone is entitled to an education.

15

 Jan 02, 2014 at 01:38 PM eliezer318 Says:

As a baal teshuva from a 'reform Judaism' background it is a source of deep pain for me when reconnecting nowadays with former highschool classmates on Facebook, etc, to see so many intermarried. Yes, the Jewish education we were given was faulty; it did not deliver knowledge of, nor commitment to, the mitzvos, Torah study, and the mandatory tefillos. BS"D, Friedlander will acquire allies and be able to lead the charge to recruit klal YIsroel's gevirim to this life-saving task.

16

 Jan 02, 2014 at 01:38 PM Barry Jacobson Says:

I wrote about this in a column in the 5 Towns Jewish Times around Rosh Hashanah. I also mentioned the problem the secular Jews have with donating towards Jewish education. When they see the behavior of certain Orthodox groups and individuals, which appears to be backwards and uncivilized, they may elect to take a pass, and donate to a hospital or university, instead.

17

 Jan 02, 2014 at 01:46 PM Haimov Says:

Educate non affiliated and assimilated jews.

18

 Jan 02, 2014 at 02:00 PM eliezer318 Says:

btw, the option should be: support Birthright To A Jewish Education, INCLUDING Birthright Israel

19

 Jan 02, 2014 at 02:17 PM zackk Says:

This is precisely the message the Lubavitcher Rebbe tried to impart to many Jewish Leaders. unfortunatly most didn't heed the call...

"The Lubavitch Rebbe saw far off in the distance, what others could not see," Lautenberg began telling him about the time he was national chair (1975-1977) of the United Jewish Appeal, a Jewish philanthropic umbrella organization (today, the Jewish Federations of North America).

"I told the Rebbe that funds need to be raised for the Jewish people in the Soviet Union and save them because their situation is grave. The Rebbe told me, 'We do need to save Russian Jewry, but on the same account we need to save the young Jews in America.'

"I asked the Rebbe what did he mean. After all, Americans have it all. He said that there is a big danger in America and that is assimilation. He said the UJA should be doing all it can to deal with assimilation.

"The Rebbe continued and said that we must care about the education of a Jewish child in Carolina that he should not assimilate, G-d forbid and he stated again that this should be UJA's mission."

According to Tiechtel, Lautenberg paused and than said, "at the time I didn't agree with the Rebbe. I thought m

20

 Jan 02, 2014 at 02:32 PM ffopinion Says:

finally a voice of reason
Mr. Ezra FRIEDLANDER: YOU SHOULD RECEIVE THE JEWISH NOBEL PRIZE

21

 Jan 02, 2014 at 03:10 PM TexasJew Says:

Excellent idea. I would combine them. If you go on Birthright, you must go to any "Jewish" school for a month.

22

 Jan 02, 2014 at 03:18 PM RobertS Says:

The education is moot if their families and peers don't reinforce and live what us learned in a good Jewish education. But the ones most likely to assimilate don't want Jewish education because they could not live with hypocrisy of learning Torah without living it. Trips to Israel will better spark desire to get Jewish education and remain Jewish. Love before logic.

23

 Jan 02, 2014 at 03:27 PM RobertS Says:

Reply to #17  
Haimov Says:

Educate non affiliated and assimilated jews.

The don't WANT meaningful Jewish education. That's why they are already assimilated.

24

 Jan 02, 2014 at 03:44 PM Liepa Says:

Reply to #23  
RobertS Says:

The don't WANT meaningful Jewish education. That's why they are already assimilated.

Completely off point, they're assimilated because they had a Public School upbringing and/or didn't have a chance for a Yeshivah education!

25

 Jan 02, 2014 at 02:25 PM Maven Says:

Reply to #16  
Barry Jacobson Says:

I wrote about this in a column in the 5 Towns Jewish Times around Rosh Hashanah. I also mentioned the problem the secular Jews have with donating towards Jewish education. When they see the behavior of certain Orthodox groups and individuals, which appears to be backwards and uncivilized, they may elect to take a pass, and donate to a hospital or university, instead.

While i will agree that many times you will find Orthodox Jews doing things which causes a great chilul hashem especial these days when the media makes sure to highlight the "orthodox Jew" factor they have nothing to be ashamed of secular Jews.


Understand well that Orthodox Jews could care less what ubber mentchen secular Jews think of them they don't envy frie yidden lifestyle and have no interest pandering to them. The writer of this article tries to pander to the outside world at every opportunity because he has a business interest.

Hope VIN will post my comment.

26

 Jan 02, 2014 at 04:47 PM Pro Ezra Says:

In response to comment #25 what does the price of apples in China have to do with the writer has an outside business interest? He is writing this because he a concerned jew.

27

 Jan 02, 2014 at 05:09 PM hashomer Says:

Birthright Israel has been a near total success for carrying out its simple goal- to get American secular Jews to Israel. To "educate" the same group with a "Jewish" education means 500 different things. Who gets the $? Who teaches? What do they study? Who will properly educate and supervise the teachers? Unless there is the most basic respect and communication between the frum and secular communities, this can never happen.

28

 Jan 02, 2014 at 05:21 PM Israel-T Says:

School choice, which is our constitutional right, will solve this problem. Not only will this not cost a dime, it will save billions in taxes. You can help achieve school choice by urging your Congressman and U.S. Senators to sponsor and champion the D.C. Civil Rights Act for Equal Educational Opportunity. This will empower D.C. Parents to send their children to the school of their choice, at HALF current costs! The remarkable success that School Choice will bring to D.C., while saving billions for American taxpayers, will ensure that School Choice is unstoppable in all 50 states. You can reach your Washington Representatives at 202-224-3121. If they refuse to sponsor the bill, join will fellow voters to elect those who will support liberty, justice, equal rights and lower taxes.

29

 Jan 02, 2014 at 06:00 PM Maven Says:

Reply to #26  
Pro Ezra Says:

In response to comment #25 what does the price of apples in China have to do with the writer has an outside business interest? He is writing this because he a concerned jew.

While he is a nice guy his concern is all about his business. He was the ONLY frum person askon who supported the mnivales Chritin Quin.

30

 Jan 02, 2014 at 07:30 PM Anonymous Says:

Reply to #20  
ffopinion Says:

finally a voice of reason
Mr. Ezra FRIEDLANDER: YOU SHOULD RECEIVE THE JEWISH NOBEL PRIZE

That's a bit much.

31

 Jan 02, 2014 at 09:30 PM Godol-Hador Says:

He is partially right. But also wrong.
Birthright has ignited a spark in any young Jews who were really really far off.
I live outside NY. I was on a flight last year with nearly the entire cabin full of kids going on birthright. You wouldn't believe how far from anything remotely jewish ( even reform/conservative) they were. But birthright has touched many thousands.
The challenge is the next step.
No they won't go to yeshivas. And I don't believe this is what the writer meant. He meant creating with those hundreds of millions a framework of education.
In other words Chabad, aish, ohr someach.
Why not support those selfless organizations to do even more??

BTW. I love in an extrely affluent city. With many many orthodox people worth hundreds of millions and even billions. I know them.
And the day schools/yeshivas/ Bais yaakov/kolel all are struggling.
The day schools need to charge exorbitant tuitions to stay afloat. Nobody is getting wealthy running a orthodox day school.
So, before we wonder why Sheldon Adelson ( a very strange man who doesn't like traditional Judaism much) doesn't give a few hundred million to "education" why not ask why the former Talmud of telz, Skokie, Philly, Lakewood, brisk and Mir don't even giveaaser to the local Torah institutions.
It's really pathetic.
There is very little giving.
Sure, you will see their names in the hamoshiach or Yates as honorees of some Israeli institution while their local making Torah drowns.
I speak from personal knowledge.

When you realize that we ourselves don't engender support for. Those that should appreciate it the most we won't ask about Bronfman.

32

 Jan 02, 2014 at 10:26 PM larry Says:

I have family that lives out of town where there is so little jewish school choice available and all i can say is we need more ezra friedlander's in the Jewish leadership world.

33

 Jan 02, 2014 at 10:45 PM Debate or agree Says:

Reply to #29  
Maven Says:

While he is a nice guy his concern is all about his business. He was the ONLY frum person askon who supported the mnivales Chritin Quin.

#26 Not necessary for every issue to be viewed thru your ideological prism. The writer makes a valid argument on the merits. Debate him or agree but personal attacks are unwarranted and show your inability to multitask. We get it, you don't like Quinn and you can't deal with Friedlanders association with her. sadly for you it's clear Mr. Friedlander can multitask and his piece speaks far louder than your smallness.

34

 Jan 02, 2014 at 10:49 PM Debate or agree Says:

Meant to reply to #29

35

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