December 11, 2018

Birthright Students and Israel: The Story the L.A. Times Missed

Screenshot from Facebook.

In the last year, 40,000 students from around the world, 80 percent from North America, participated in Birthright Israel trips. Last summer, 12 of them, members of the group If Not Now, staged a walkout on two Birthright trips. It was planned in advance. They signed up with the agenda of walking out, sharing the story on social media and creating controversy. Now, some five months later, the Los Angeles Times took the bait. In a front-page story, “Young American Jews spark Birthright Debate” (Dec. 5), they played up what they called a small movement among American Jews to protest Israeli policies by leaving Birthright. The Times did not tell the reader that this was far from a small movement. Rather it’s a sliver; some 12 students out of 40,000, just .0003 percent.

Yes, this group does have a few supporters, but this is not news. Ever since Israel was established 70 years ago, there has been an element of the Jewish community on the far-left opposed to its policies. In the 1970s, Breira and the New Jewish Agenda emerged, criticizing Israel’s policies when PLO terror was at its height. They were followed by Peace Now and others. If Not Now is just the latest incarnation of this political philosophy. It is carrying on the same ideas that have been championed by its ideological predecessors for decades. It’s old news.

Instead of turning to campus rabbis, leaders and professionals on the ground to give the Times more perspective, the writer seeks the viewpoints of community rabbis with little campus involvement. The Times highlights the views of Rabbi Sharon Brous, known for her criticism of Israel. The reporter also doesn’t explore the other criticisms of Birthright that I and others have, namely its refusal to give balance to the program by visiting Jewish settlements beyond the Green Line. Clearly, this seems more like agenda journalism than real reporting.

With a little gumshoe, the reporter could have discovered the biggest challenge facing Jewish students today. One of the leading campus professionals in the United States, Rebbetzin Rivkah Slonim, of Rohr Chabad Center for Jewish Student Life in Binghamton, N.Y.,  recently described the real threat of BDS: Jewish students who are “Bored, Disinterested and Satisfied.” Growing up with little Jewish education and weakening ties to Jewish community, feeling little motivation from outside threats of anti-Semitism or causes like the plight of Soviet Jewry to rally around, today’s students are increasingly disengaging from Jewish life. According to Slonim, the actual challenge is reconnecting these students to Judaism.

Campus rabbis and Birthright organizers say that there is a marked change among students today from those of 10 years ago. Then, they had a modicum of Jewish knowledge and were active in the community. Today’s students, says Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi at Harvard Chabad, come knowing almost nothing. Some feel sympathy for what they perceive are the victims, in this case, the “weak” Palestinians versus the “powerful” Israelis, but that percentage is not large. The real issue is that Israel and Judaism is not important to many Jewish students. One of the great successes of Birthright is that it has, in many cases, ignited that bond.

Assigning a reporter known for her excellent coverage of local news on such a complicated and nuanced story, the connection of American Jews to Israel, is clearly a major mistake. Inexperienced and lacking a depth on the real issue, the reporter and the Times has done all of us a major disservice. It’s absurd to claim that 12 students out of 40,000 walking out over a trip to Israel is sparking a major debate or signals a shift in the attitudes of American Jews toward Israel. There have always been students critical of Israel—that is not news. The real news is the disengagement of Jews from Judaism and Israel because of the lack of Jewish education and the strategies like Birthright that are changing that trend. Which the Times never even tried to discover.

Rabbi David Eliezrie, a former campus rabbi, is the president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County. His email is


Jews and Intermarriage: A Love-Fate Relationship

It’s becoming the great unspoken yet perennial source of anguish haunting the Jewish world. It’s that nerve pressing on the blue-and-white or red-white-and-blue spine, inflaming the anguish fueling most Jewish arguments today. It’s American Jewry’s great divider, pitting the Orthodox and a dwindling handful of conservative Conservatives against everyone else while distinguishing most Israelis from most American Jews. It used to be considered a threat. Now, some are trying to give it a makeover as an “opportunity” — even a pluralistic, humanistic, universalizing blessing — as we evolve beyond our “racist,” particularist sins. “It” is intermarriage.

Think about it. No Jewish community could ever survive a 70-percent intermarriage rate (higher if you only count non-Orthodox marriages). No community can sustain itself with negative population growth. And no community, theoretically or practically, can exist without red lines: A community needs unity about something.

Yet, every intermarriage is a love story. In a broken world where so many are so lonely, who dares mourn when people find caring partners for life? Every intermarriage is a success story — only in America would Jews emerge as the most admired religious community. Only in America and some other Americanized democracies could we coin that deliciously neurotic, oh-so-Jewish lament: “Once they killed us with their hate; now they’re killing us with their love.” And every intermarriage is a story making the American dream come true. From “The Jazz Singer” to “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” to “Today’s Special,” Hollywood treats parents who oppose intermarriage as the heavies, who usually see the red-white-and-blue light by the time the story reaches its happy ending.

In today’s overheated politics, as he’s doing with nationalism, President Donald Trump is giving the notion of any borders a bad name. But boundaries don’t just keep people out. They also build meaning, solidarity and pride inside. For states, nations, communities and families, lines separating those from within and without foster internal bonds. True, rigid boundaries can become nooses, choking off the oxygen flow that healthy groups need to grow and thrive; but no community can survive without some frameworks. As Momma Troy warned, if you’re too open-minded, your brains fall out.

Intermarriage looms underneath all the Jewish identity-building, educating, Birthrighting and Hebrew schooling. Intermarriage shrinks the Jewish-peoplehood power that needs Israel, relies on Israel and loves Israel. Most Israelis can’t understand this modern Masada, this mass act of communal suicide. As one nonreligious Israeli friend said: “We do everything — we take out the Jewish people’s garbage. We fight. We pay taxes. We sacrifice sometimes with our lives. American Jews just have to do one thing — stay Jewish. But they can’t even do that right.”

Clearly, this hair-trigger issue requires more conversation, not less; less political correctness, not more; braver thinkers, not cowards. Yet, intermarriage has become the third rail of Jewish politics. Non-Orthodox rabbis risk repudiation from colleagues if they endorse it; non-Orthodox non-rabbis risk ostracism if they oppose it — condemned as racist, judgmental or mean.

This issue of issues is so complex, the stakes so high, that we need capacious, creative and courageous thinkers to help.

Fortunately, one ace thinker has arrived — Robert Mnookin. He has a superlawyer’s parsing skills and elegance. He has a mediator’s decency and out-of-the-box insights. And he need not be brave: He has tenure at Harvard Law School, a position guaranteed to intimidate most Jewish American success junkies.

In his ambitious, thought-provoking, dazzling and, yes, sometimes frustrating book — “The Jewish American Paradox: Embracing Choice in a Changing World” — Mnookin deftly tackles this volatile intermarriage issue. The Samuel Williston Professor of Law, the chair of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, and the director of the Harvard Negotiation Research Project, Mnookin finds Jews’ traditional matrilineal standard too exclusive yet too inclusive. Why should someone who wants to be Jewish not be welcomed? he wonders. And why should somebody who doesn’t care, yet has a Jewish mother, merit lifetime membership?

This question is not simply theoretical for him. In this deeply personal book, Mnookin tells his family’s story as a modern Jewish American parable. Raised as assimilated Reform Jews in the 1940s and ’50s, he and his wife were thoroughly ambivalent, take-it-for-granted Jews. “The idea wasn’t to deny being Jewish,” he recalls, “but rather to fit in.” They mimicked many other successful Jews, “accepting my Jewish heritage, if not exactly embracing it, and then thinking about it as little as possible.” Then, while Mnookin was on an Oxford sabbatical, their 11-year-old daughter, Jennifer, asked, “When are we actually going to become Jewish?” She also demanded a bat mitzvah.

Jennifer’s challenge jump-started a process that accelerated decades later when Mnookin became Grandpa Mnookin. “Continuity suddenly mattered to me,” he writes.Today, he’s activated his Jewish identity and he laments that some of his grandchildren are dismissed as “half-Jewish” because one of his two daughters intermarried, even though all his grandchildren are halachically Jewish.

Such bizarre, seemingly arbitrary categorizing offends his legal and liberal sense of fairness. The result is his thoughtful compromise rejecting the traditional approaches of matrilineal descent or Orthodox conversion as the only two entrees into Judaism. If you want to call yourself Jewish, you’re Jewish, he insists, embracing a big-tent approach. But let each institution and each denomination define its own membership rules, he says. Belonging to the Jewish people should have a low, voluntary bar, while belonging to an Orthodox or Conservative synagogue could still follow tradition.

Mnookin’s proposal is genuinely lovely, acknowledging the pain people feel when rejected. It expresses a welcoming spirit difficult to dislike. And to a people so obsessed with our fate that the scholar Simon Rawidowicz, a half-century ago, christened Jews “the ever-dying people,” it says, logically: Let ’em in!

The modern me, the American me, the academic me, the liberal me and especially the nice-guy me want to high-five Mnookin and thank him for solving this painful dilemma. Yet, the Jewish, Zionist and Israeli in me resist — especially because I just finished reading Jonathan Haidt’s majestic “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” Haidt recalls living in India, where he learned to appreciate other values beyond his, ahem, orthodox liberalism, individualism and openness. Beyond liberal “autonomy,” he discovered what his fellow cultural psychologist Richard Shweder calls “community” and “divinity,” let alone authority.

“Liberals hate the idea of exclusion,” Haidt writes, as if he were writing a memo to Mnookin — but then notes how inconsistent that perspective is. When one of his students condemned Catholics for rejecting doctrinal rebels, Haidt noted how many applicants are rejected by their own University of Virginia department (let alone Harvard Law). Haidt urges liberals to appreciate values such as community, authority and sanctity (he urges conservatives to respect liberals’ commitment to caring and fairness, too). 

Mnookin’s openness sacrifices the authority, the sanctity and the mystical powers that sustain Judaism. The moats the rabbis dug around Judaism worked. And they reflected sincere beliefs, not just anthropological appreciation, for cultural props. Such faith can bring out the best in people, speaking to their most spiritual, altruistic and communal selves.

Mnookin’s welcome mat invites the critique that the feminist writer Anne Roiphe offered of her similarly universalist parenting in her 1981 book, “Generation Without Memory.”

“Judaism and Jewishness in America (with some exceptions) appear to be thinning,” Roiphe wrote. “I appreciate our Thanksgiving and Christmas. I know that I will make beautiful weddings for our daughters and that our funerals will serve well enough. But I do believe that the tensions of the ancient ways, the closeness of primitive magic, the patina of the ages and the sense of connection to past and future that are lacking in our lives are serious losses.”

Mnookin’s criteria lack the “primitive magic, the patina of the ages” that reinforce much of Jewish tradition. Tolerating it on denominational sublevels isn’t enough.

Moreover, as a Zionist, while loving his outreach, I fear the fragmentation occurring as boundaries collapse and demarcations of Jewish peoplehood proliferate. Clearly, Mnookin is not responsible for this condition and is trying to help Jews cope. But we need more centripetal forces — pushing us inward toward one another, not centrifugal forces flinging us outward in multiple directions.

Finally, as an Israeli, I appreciate the need for uniformity. While cheering Mnookin’s marvelously crisp, clear chapter about Israel’s “who is a Jew” controversy, I believe states need consistent rules. A Jewish state defined aptly by the novelist A.B. Yehoshua as a state for all its citizens as well as for the Jewish people needs certain standards for determining who can immigrate under the Law of Return.

My skepticism about his proposal didn’t detract from my delight in reading this wonderful book. Mnookin jumps off the pages as a master teacher, a charming intellectual companion. He knows how to challenge substantively, disagree agreeably and spark discussion amicably.

His book beautifully summarizes modern Judaism — and the modern Jewish American condition. He identifies four causes of modern Jewish American drift: Most American Jews don’t practice the religion; Jews aren’t persecuted in America; Israeli policies cause bitter conflict instead of unity; and intermarriage. He addresses the anomaly — still true after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting — that anti-Semitism rarely occurs yet constantly dominates the Jewish American psyche. He writes passionately about the “Jewish spark” that his Americanizing, assimilating, globetrotting and career-ladder climbing couldn’t extinguish. He identifies many Jewish American challenges, including how to fit in yet stand out; how to navigate the slipperiness of individual identity and the solidity of collective loyalty; how to explain this shared sense of destiny; and the need so many of his peers have to see their grandchildren somehow stay Jewish.

And he’s practical, not just theoretical. A chapter on raising a Jewish child offers valuable relationship advice on how intermarried parents should navigate their differences and nurture their children’s Jewish identities. He identifies four critical elements: Jewish activities in the home, Jewish education, Jewish social networks and exposure to Israel. He coaches grandparents on how to help. And in the spirit of his core belief — that being Jewish should be a choice, a mission, not merely a “status” — he identifies three categories of activities he integrates into his week, which others can follow: study, have a Jewish experience, and engage communally with other Jews.

Most profoundly, his book will help non-Jewish readers explore their own values and identities — or lack thereof — while Jewish readers consider his core areas of concern: “Why I am choosing to be Jewish, why being a part of our diverse tribe is meaningful for me, and how being Jewish does make a difference in how I am living my life.”

Unfortunately, this clearly thoughtful guy doesn’t fully appreciate Judaism’s metaphysical depth or countercultural power. His graceful summary of the “smorgasbord of Jewish values, music, food, traditions, rituals, spirituality, language, philanthropic causes and connections with Israel” needed to add that enchanting, weighty word — philosophy.

But even where I disagree, or feel he fell short, I remain grateful for the categories he developed and the tone he set.

I recently met a proper British Jewish banker, who every Monday unintentionally makes his non-Jewish colleagues envious. He simply describes all his weekend Jewish communal and spiritual activities, from Shabbat dinners to charity events. Mnookin’s book reminded me of my friend. None of us would be arrogant enough to brand Judaism the best way or the only way. But we all value Judaism as our way. To anyone, Jewish or non-Jewish, who can’t imagine “why bother,” this book is a must read.

Ultimately, even those of us skeptical about Mnookin’s anti-matrilinealism can appreciate his celebration of his “re-Jew-venation” as his even greater contribution to the intermarriage debate. “Thou shalt nots” won’t prevent intermarriage or assimilation. Only smart, compelling and welcoming visions of what Judaism was, is and can be — like his — will work. And the more Jews are challenged and charmed by Mnookin’s excellent primer, the more likely they will be to make an “I” statement, namely, “I choose to be Jewish, not because it’s important to my parents or grandparents but because it’s important to me.” 

That renewed Jewish journey, not some hoary guilt trip, is the key to a dynamic Jewish future — and the reason to hail publication of this important, accessible, stimulating contribution to our 3,500-year-old debate about who we are, who we have been, and who we can be.

Gil Troy, a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, is the author of “The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland — Then, Now, Tomorrow.”

A Tale of Beards and Stars – A poem for Parsha Toldot (Aliyah 1) by Rick Lupert

Two nations are in your womb, and two kingdoms will separate from your innards,
and one kingdom will become mightier than the other kingdom

This is the kind of information parents shouldn’t be given.
You want the best for all your children and try not to

play favorites, but you’ve been given an inside track here
and when you utter phrases like I love you both just the same

it falls flat in your own ears. How do you explain the
different sized college funds when you know one will

end up owning the college, and the other will just
grow a beard? This is the knowledge that let’s you

go back in time and change everything. This is
not the way it’s supposed to be.

And the first one emerged ruddy;
he was completely like a coat of hair

Such a bold color for a child
Esau, the human fashion statement
a face like blood, a body like winter –

A pinch in his foot as he burst into the world.
Dumb like a beard. Already hungry.
Already glad not to have to

share air with his brother.
Esau, red as the day he was born.
Already ready to give it all up.

Jacob was an innocent man, dwelling in tents

Jacob, quiet – a tent dweller, soup cooker
inheritance trickster, birthright stealer –
Destined to own the farm.

Jacob, the thinker, momma’s little boy
You thought two kids was a lot –
wait ’til you see what he can do.

Jacob makes the lentils. Jacob of the
kempt beard. Jacob, never quite let go
of his brother’s foot.

And I will multiply your seed like the stars of the heavens

There’s that promise again
The prenatal care of our dreams

A forever glance up to see
the impossibility of keeping up

with holiday cards.
It’s okay. You can always

see the stars, but
it’s not your responsibility

to reach them. You couldn’t
if you tried.

God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Birthright Participants Who Staged Walk-Out Start GoFundMe Page to Pay for Flight Home

Screenshot from Facebook.

A group of Birthright participants decided to walk out from a couple of buses during a trip to protest the Israeli “occupation” of the West Bank. Now the activists have started a GoFundMe page to pay for their flight home.

According to the Times of Israel, eight activists walked out of two buses on their sixth day of the 10-day Birthright trip, claiming that Birthright would not show them the “occupation” of the West Bank so they went on their own to the area.

“Visiting Israel in 2018 and not receiving comprehensive education about the occupation is like visiting the South in the 1950s and not talking about Jim Crow segregation,” the GoFundMe page read. “Young Jews deserve the truth about what’s being done in our name and it is out of touch and absurd that Birthright would try to hide this from us.”

Consequently, Birthright canceled their flights home and held on to their $250 deposit, prompting the activists to launch the GoFundMe page to cover their travel and potential legal costs. The activists are claiming that Birthright threatened them with a lawsuit, which Birthright denies.

“We respect the ability of all participants to formulate their own views and opinions, and engage in productive and respectful dialogue,” Birthright said in a statement. “However, we will not tolerate any attempts to use this experience to promote ideological agendas.”

Six of the activists belong to a progressive Jewish organization called IfNotNow, which has previously confronted Birthright leaders and attendees as they leave for Israel.

As of publication time, the activists raised nearly $12,000 on the GoFundMe page.

H/T: Daily Wire

Birthright, 13 Years Later

Birthright Israel

Traveling is always an adventure, the anticipation of which always inducing a certain amount of anxiety in me.

I am experiencing that now. Exactly one week from today, I will be on an El Al Airlines flight to Israel. I am traveling with my family: my parents, my sister, her husband and their son. We are traveling to the Holy Land for my sister’s best friend wedding.

This will be my fifth time in Israel and the lead-up is making me reflect on my first time there. I was 18-years-old and had just finished my first year of college at UC Santa Cruz. It is hard to believe that was 13 years—a whole bar mitzvah—ago.

I was traveling with the Birthright program, Israel Outdoors, with my friend, Daniel, who I grew up with in Los Angeles. Prior to the trip, we sat down with our fathers at Coffee Bean on Beverly Drive and talked about what we could expect. Beyond the ten days of the Birthright Israel trip, we were extending our time in the country and also visiting Greece and Italy.

Indeed, we hopped around the Greek Islands. In Italy, we went to Venice, Florence, Rome and Pompeii.

Our Birthright trip, however, is what stays with me. We hiked up and ran down Masada. Foolishly, I did the hike in Converse sneakers. I spent way too much time before the trip agonizing about what kind of shoes to bring and in typical fashion I settled on something hip and completely impractical.

Other highlights were camping in a tent among the Bedouins; joining a random family for tea in their home; posing for a photo in a tunnel at an archeological site with all my bros from the group. Of course, I fell for a girl, Rachel, a brunette from Kansas City, but I was too dumb to do anything about it. One of the guys in the group, a married, skinny 30-something-year-old with a baseball cap and a cool attitude who worked in the entertainment industry, came up to me and the other guys my age during breakfast in our hotel one morning and asked us why none of us were trying harder to hook up with any of the girls. In normal me fashion, rather than enjoying the present, I was focused on the future. I had talks with this guy on the bus about how unsure I was about what I wanted to do with my life. I told him I was thinking about a job in entertainment but I did not think I had the social skills to make it in that networking-heavy field. He told me I was crazy for thinking that.

Two of the guys in the group, who were my age, teased me for my other footwear, flip-flops, which I wore almost everywhere, even on nights out. They called me “hippie.” I am sure I wore those flip-flops while singing “Bye Bye Bye” by N’Sync in a karaoke bar in Jerusalem. My friend Daniel and our American guide, whose name I can’t remember, sang it with me.

It is unfortunate I can’t remember our guide’s name; I liked him from the beginning—and when Daniel and I drank too much one night and behaved inappropriately, even for a Birthright trip, he showed us mercy, could tell how sorry we were, and let us off the hook even though the powers that be were thinking about sending us home.

A lot of people criticize the Birthright program for being this indoctrination into blind support for Israel. I did not experience any of that. All I had was fun, and it is a shame that I don’t think about the trip more. Instead I focus on my job, or relationships, or money, or how I need to catch up on the latest Netflix show or I won’t be able to talk to my coworkers about it.

Before the trip, I had my layover at JFK Airport, where everybody from all over the country came together before the chartered flight to Israel. We were getting to know to each other, going around the circle at the gate sharing something about ourselves, and our American guide said he was a Phish fan. I nodded at Daniel in approval.

During the long flight to Israel, Daniel and I passed the time by engaging in our favorite pastime, coming up with fictional band names–Gelato Aficionado was and still is my favorite.

Music has always been a big part of my life. In the Old City in Jerusalem, I bought a Phish T-shirt from a souvenir shop. The shirt spelled out Phish in Hebrew.

How many guys my age have visited that souvenir shop and purchased that very Phish T-shirt while on their Birthright trip?

During that trip, I was tanner and thinner than I will ever be. We were swimming in a waterfall up north near the Golan Heights and Rachel’s friend complimented me on my Vs.

The hike near the Golan, and the military outpost looking out into Syria, are forever in my memory.

I have not thought about these experiences for years. I have had such great experiences in Israel, but I allow these memories to fade in favor of the meaningless problems of the day.

This upcoming trip will likely be the first of many times my two-year-old nephew travels to Israel. He’s lucky to go at such a young age. Even though he won’t remember the trip, one day, perhaps as he is preparing to go on Birthright and freaking out about what shoes to pack, his parents will tell him how he has been to Israel already—and was just as difficult to deal with then.



The Beauty of Yes

Photo from Max Pixel.

When you have a child with significant disabilities, you get used to hearing “no.”

From nationally recognized speech therapists who say, “Sorry, my cutting-edge techniques won’t work for your son,” after you have schlepped the family halfway across the country to work with them, to Jewish educators who will open their classrooms to some “higher-functioning” students with special needs but not to those who need one-to-one assistance. Not to mention navigating the world of special education in the public school system in which you need to become an expert on the governing federal laws in order to get the services to which your child is entitled.

Such was the case with Birthright. Although I have worked on and off as a Jewish community professional for many years, I never imagined that our son, Danny, now 23, would be able to go on Birthright — the program providing free Israel trips to adults between 18 and 26 — in spite of the fact that he would be the perfect candidate in many ways.

He grew up watching kids’ musical videos in Hebrew, understands a lot of Hebrew, attends Shabbat services weekly at a Conservative synagogue and has visited Israel with our family. He loves Israeli dances and enjoys flying on planes.  He has probably watched the documentary “Hava Nagila” more than anyone else in the world, and his older sister spent a Masa-sponsored gap year in Israel, speaks Hebrew fluently and has staffed two Birthright trips.

In my former position at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, I sat in on many meetings with Birthright staff members and always enjoyed hearing all of their post-trip stories and adventures. But I couldn’t imagine a Birthright trip that would be able to accommodate Danny, who has limited mobility, not to mention a complicated medication regimen. The 10-day Birthright trips are known for their fast-paced, grueling schedules, including intensive physical activities and moving from hotel to hotel.

How could Danny ever participate in a trip like that?

Then in September, I received an email from the national Conservative-affiliated Camp Ramah Tikvah network. It was announcing the first-ever Birthright Israel: Amazing Israel-Ramah Tikvah trip for young adults ages 18-29 with disabilities. Ramah has organized previous Israel trips for Tikvah program participants and alumni, but this would be the first one being offered in collaboration with the international Birthright program, which has brought more than 600,000 young Jews to Israel since 1999.

The trip starts on Dec. 18 and will include classic Birthright Israel activities such as visiting Masada (by cable car) and Yad Vashem and spending Shabbat in Jerusalem, while also adding programming geared specifically for these participants, such as meeting Israeli soldiers with special needs.

Thanks to Elana Naftalin-Kelman, Tikvah director at Camp Ramah in California in Ojai, Danny has been an overnight summer camper there for the past nine years, always accompanied by a personal aide to help him with such everyday activities as dressing, eating and showering. Danny loves his time at camp, and we also love our “time off” from family caregiving. Last summer, Danny was able to gain vocational experience doing his favorite activity — being a DJ at the side of the pool, which also is his favorite place in camp.

I never imagined that our son, Danny, would be able to go on Birthright.

Elana helped me connect with Howard Blas, National Ramah Tikvah Network director, who is coordinating and leading the trip in partnership with Amazing Israel, the Birthright tour provider. Howard has led many trips to Israel with young adults with disabilities and fully understands the need to adjust the trip’s pace and intensity.

During our Skype call with him, Howard was very welcoming and open to the idea of having our personal aide from camp accompany Danny on this trip. He told us, “While we will all learn a lot from the explanations of our very experienced tour educator, Doron, each person will experience Israel differently. The trip takes each participant’s unique needs and learning style into consideration. We will experience Israel through all of our senses — riding a jeep in the Golan Heights, floating in the Dead Sea, planting trees, making chocolate and T-shirts, touching the Kotel and lots of singing, dancing and eating delicious Israeli foods!”

The word “yes” has never sounded so good.

Michelle K. Wolf is a special needs parent activist and nonprofit professional. She is the founding executive director of the Jewish Los Angeles Special Needs Trust. Visit her Jews and Special Needs blog at

Q&A with Charles Bronfman on Birthright and the Best Prize of All

In the summer of 1998, Charles Bronfman was sitting outside the Israel Museum in Jerusalem with fellow philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, discussing an idea: What if every young Jewish person in the world had a voucher for a free trip to Israel?

The idea struck Bronfman as implausible, but he was willing to give it a try. Two decades later, Steinhardt and Bronfman are best known in the Jewish community as the names behind Birthright.

Since 2001 — the year he parted with Seagram’s, the liquor company that made his fortune — Bronfman, 86, has been more concerned with giving away money than making it. He spoke with the Journal from his New York City office, where he was spending a few days before returning to his winter home in Palm Beach, Fla.

Jewish Journal: From your perspective, what is the greatest challenge to the Jewish people in North America?

Charles Bronfman: Keeping our relationship with Israel on a sound basis. The Israeli government reneged on its commitment regarding the Western Wall and reneged on the conversion deal. That’s the kind of thing that’s going to do onerous things to our relationship over time. What’ll happen will be that youngsters on both sides will say, “Well, they don’t give a damn about us.”

JJ: Nominations recently opened for the 2018 Charles Bronfman Prize, a $100,000 award in your name for humanitarians inspired by Jewish values. Can you tell me about past prize winners?

CB: The amazing thing to me about the prize winners is although they all have to be under 50, they have gone on to achieve greater results than they had before. They’re amazing people. I love them all. When my children gave me that prize, 15 years ago, it was one of the greatest days of my life. I cannot imagine a more loving present and more impactful present that any child could give a father. And I’m tearing up as I say this to you.

JJ: They gave you the prize as a present?

CB: They’re funding it, and it’s in my name. They set it up on my 70th birthday.

JJ: Not a lot of children have the means and connections to give that sort of birthday gift.

CB: It doesn’t have to millions of dollars. They can promise to keep the lawns on the street nice. It just has to be something that the children know that the parent or parents really appreciate, and because of my life and my philanthropic bent, nothing could have pleased me more that I could ever imagine.

JJ: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about Birthright. Did you think it would become as big as it has?

CB: Never in a million years. This was something that Michael Steinhardt and I decided to give a shot. We didn’t know if it was going to work. We had no idea. I call it the quintessential venture philanthropy. It’s the same idea as venture capital: You’re really placing a bet, saying, “Can this thing work?” We’re thrilled, of course, thrilled right through to our bones.

JJ: How did the idea come about in the first place?

CB: It came up when both Michael and I were in Israel in the summer of ’98 and both of us had met Yossi Beilin. He was one of Shimon Peres’ boys. And Yossi had this idea that all 17-year-olds should have a voucher from anywhere in the world for a trip to Israel. Michael was sort of taken with this idea. So later, I was at a party with Michael. We were at the Jewish Museum overlooking the — pardon the expression — the Valley of the Cross, sitting on a wall, because he’d asked to speak with me. And he said, “What do you think of this idea of Yossi’s?” And I said, “That’s a scheme to bankrupt the Jewish world.” I said, “Well, this is an audacious scheme.” And he said, “Well, if it’s audacious, why don’t we try to figure it out?”

JJ: What’s next for Charles Bronfman? You don’t seem to show signs of slowing down.

CB: I am slowing down, thank you very much. I have decided that at my tender age, it’s about time to smell the flowers, son, to play some more golf and read.

Lipnicki delights as Birthright’s 600,000 participant

Jonathan Lipnicki in “Jerry Maguire” (below) and today. Photo by Bjoern Kommerell

In its first year, 2000, Birthright-Israel provided almost 9,000 Jews ages 18 to 26 free 10-day tours of Israel’s cultural and religious sites.

Now, with nearly 50,000 young people from 67 countries visiting each year, the organization just sent its 600,000th participant around Israel, and it’s a familiar face — actor Jonathan Lipnicki.

“I feel Birthright is a really positive organization, and knowing that my community backs me like this is a special feeling,” Lipnicki said. “I feel pretty honored with that distinction.”

As a 5-year-old, a bespectacled Lipnicki stoles scenes acting alongside Tom Cruise and Renee Zellweger in the 1996 film “Jerry Maguire.” As a preteen, he starred in a pair of “Stuart Little” films, “Like Mike” and “The Little Vampire.” They made him one of the most recognizable child stars on the planet.

Lipnicki, 26, grew up in Westlake Village, attending the Reform congregation Temple Adat Elohim. In synagogue, he remembers hearing about Israel but the words rang hollow. With his Birthright trip still fresh in his mind after returning to the United States in early August, Lipnicki said he now sees what all the fuss was about.

“I think you can’t help but forge a new connection with the country, just seeing the sites and being present,” he said. “It’s this far-off thing they talk about in temple when they say you must visit Israel. It’s not tangible until you visit it and you see why they talk about it so much. I forged a new relationship with my Judaism but also expanded the one I have currently. I’ve always been proud to be Jewish, but that was reaffirmed. I’m going to remember this for the rest of my life.”

For years, Lipnicki knew about the trip. Many of his friends and even his sister had gone before him. They all raved about it to him, so expectations before his July departure from Newark, N.J., were sky-high.

Jonathan Lipnicki

“And they were exceeded by far,” he said. “It’s an amazing place. I loved the country. I had such an amazing time in Tel Aviv, which reminded me of Miami. I loved the beach there. The water there was like bathwater and it was so clear.”

Lipnicki cited floating in the Dead Sea and Israeli food as other highlights. However, there was one stop on the trip that left an indelible impression.

“The Western Wall was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had,” he said. “There was this sense of community I felt there. It felt like I was home. It was pretty incredible.”

As is standard on Birthright trips, a group of eight Israelis, usually a collection of soldiers and college students, accompanied Lipnicki’s group. The actor said he clicked with them instantly.

“There were so many similarities between us, particularly our sense of humor,” he said. “That’s where I really connected with the Israelis, just with having a good time.”

Lipnicki also observed what he deemed a stark difference between young Americans and Israelis.

“Their level of maturity is pretty astounding,” he said. “They have a different perspective on life, growing up in different circumstances. To see their different perspective on life and how they’ve grown up out there is enlightening. They are a product of their circumstances, theirs being more grave than mine. They’re definitely more mature at a younger age.”

Lipnicki, a working actor living in the Studio City area, said he feels inspired to re-engage with his Jewish community now that he has returned home. He hasn’t been a member of a synagogue in a long time but would like to change that, and he also spoke about enrolling in a kabbalah class, thanks to an impactful visit to Safed, a city regarded as mystical for its historical connections to kabbalah.

“We saw an artist there named Avraham from Michigan who moved to Israel,” Lipnicki said. “He made these paintings that were kabbalah-themed. I’m a very spiritual person and it definitely got to me. I would like to read up on it more and maybe take a class.”

Would he go back to Israel?

“Definitely,” he said. “One hundred percent. I hope to go back soon.”

The billionaire who founded Birthright has a private zoo

One of Michael Steinhardt’s more unique possessions is his group of zedonks, the offspring of a zebra and a donkey that he calls “zonkeys.” Photo by Ben Sales

When Michael Steinhardt strolls around his 55-acre backyard for 90 minutes every morning, one of his favorite animals to see is the scimitar-horned oryx, whose antlers sweep back from its head like the swords for which they are named. But Steinhardt didn’t much like finding out that a (literally) horny oryx had stabbed a zebra to death during a testosterone-fueled mating season three years ago.

The zebra incident is, thankfully, an outlier on his sprawling estate about an hour north of Manhattan, home to at least 30 species of animals as well as more than 100 birds. It’s been called a “private zoo,” but that’s true only in the sense that St. Peter’s Basilica is Pope Francis’ local church.

I rode north for an hour on a train expecting animals in cages, a few serene ponds with exotic fish, maybe some petting opportunities. I didn’t expect to pass a spiral bamboo climbing structure (for humans), to take a walk across a rickety rope bridge in the middle of a forest, or to find owls squawking at me, Harry Potter-style, in the middle of the day, causing me to re-evaluate whether the expression “night owl” is really even accurate.

Soon after, we come across two century-old tortoises humping, the bottom one slowly crescendoing up on her wrinkled legs as her lover cranes his long neck diagonally downward. The “guy on top,” Steinhardt informs me, is named Sexton — for John Sexton, the past president of New York University. The reason?

“Sexton was the boss of NYU and this guy is the boss of the tortoises,” explains Steinhardt, an NYU trustee.

Then Steinhardt tells me I can ride another tortoise, bareback, a few feet away. Usually I try to remove myself from the stories I cover. But I mount the reptile.

“Tortoise equestrian” is generally not the first phrase that comes to mind when discussing Steinhardt, the hedge fund billionaire who helped create Birthright, the free 10-day trips to Israel for young Jews. But Steinhardt’s zoo, at around 15 years old, is only slightly younger than Birthright – and it reveals a totally different side of the man’s personality.


Steinhardt fashions himself as the disruptive Jewish innovator – outspoken about the shortcomings of American Judaism, discussing it in full, extemporaneous paragraphs and ready to put his money where his mouth is. He has embarked on venture after venture – first the free Israel trips, then a network of Hebrew-language charter schools, now a museum of natural history at Tel Aviv University that will open this summer. The museum is a way for Steinhardt to merge his love of fauna with his love of Israel — especially because he says he’s not allowed to import Israeli animals across the ocean.

He is eager to defend all of these programs with statistics proving their worth. And despite his very high profile, Steinhardt says his Jewish initiatives are really about other people – the half-million Jewish young adults who have gone on Birthright, say, or the students who attend the charter schools.

But the zoo is all about Steinhardt himself; he made it solely so he and his family could live among beauty. Steinhardt likes to meander from field to field, introducing visitors to red kangaroos, marmosets or wallabies, an Australian marsupial.

“I decided to do this because I really love animals and I thought that this would create more joy for my family and I than anything else I could do,” he says.

Seconds later, he is back to being a tour guide.

“Directly in front of you is a female ostrich,” he says, pointing. “To the right is a group of guanacos. There are four different varieties of South American cameloids: They are alpacas and llamas and vicunas and guanacos.”

Steinhardt, who takes regular 90-minute strolls around his 55-acre private zoo, enjoys interacting with his tortoises. Photo by Ben Sales


Steinhardt’s love of animals began with the parakeets and fish he had as a child, and as an adult he has built an ecosystem of flora and fauna from across the globe. If Steinhardt is a kind of Moses with Birthright, on a mission to bring the Jews (briefly) to Israel, here he is Noah – animals from all over the world now surround him two by two.

He feels a tranquility on the grounds because they are blissfully free of the kinds of problems his philanthropy is trying to solve. In Israel, the Jews fight with the Palestinians. At his zoo, the swan lies with the capybara.

“What we do differently here is we have a variety of disparate animals together,” Steinhardt says. “Even though I’m used to it, it still feels like a treat.”

Many of the animals on the estate roam on rolling hills enclosed with wooden fences. The swans and capybaras — the world’s largest rodent — lounge on the bank of a pond among scattered landscaped trees and stones. Some of the more carnivorous animals do live in cages – like a group of serval cats – though the enclosures lead out to small, separate fields. The marmosets, a New World monkey species, live in tall, rectangular cages with a complex branch infrastructure tailored for climbing. Birds flit and perch inside an aviary.

Steinhardt’s zoo includes 30 species of animals, including the red kangaroo, front, and ostrich. Photo by Ben Sales


Steinhardt has no method for choosing his animals. Seeing one he likes, he’ll see if he can get it. He has a dealer he trusts, and also will make deals with zoos. The capybaras, for example, were adaptable to the climate, and he liked that they could stay underwater for long stretches. Now he’s negotiating a large donation to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., possibly in exchange for red pandas, though Steinhardt says he has little space to expand.

He is vague about his zoo’s specs – how much it costs to run (Steinhardt ignores the question), how he stays within regulations governing private zoos (it’s all legal, he assures: “The local police are perfectly nice.”) and how many people he employs to tend to the animals (his answer: “1.2 percent of the male population of Nicaragua,” which comes out to roughly 34,000 people. He is kidding.).

At the end of the walk through the zoo, plus a visit to his private strawberry garden, we hop on a golf cart that takes us through much of the rest of the estate – sloping paths through unmanicured forests, water trickling down a rock sculpture, a large, boxy house in a clearing that Steinhardt is building for his daughter’s family.

And then, at the finish of the odyssey, we see the zedonks. Half-zebra, half-donkey – Steinhardt prefers the word “zonkey” – they stand in a trio, brown pack animals covered in black stripes, a puffy black mane and pointy ears sprouting from their necks and heads. Not far away are camels, which we all but ignore. The zedonks approach us warily, intruders in their habitat, and let us observe them.

But by then, Steinhardt is transforming back into the billionaire philanthropist – taking business calls, coordinating logistics for how we would leave. We have been with the animals for more than an hour. Now it is time to return to America, its Jews and their problems.

30,000 young adult Jews visited Israel over the summer with Birthright

Some 30,000 young Jews from 59 countries visited Israel over the summer with Birthright Israel, which offers free 10-day trips to Israel for young Jews between ages 18 and 26.

Birthright announced last week that it will offer a new, seven-day trip to Israel in an effort to allow young professionals to participate in the free trip to Israel.

“The purpose of this trip offering is to allow those who are busy and having a hard time taking off work to still enjoy the trip,” said Noa Bauer, Birthright Israel’s VP of International Marketing. “We’re reaching out to young professionals who are committed to building their careers and can’t seem to take the full 10 days off work.

Over the past 16 years, Birthright Israel has brought more than 500,000 young Jewish adults to Israel.

Reinventing education in Israel

After launching a successful bilingual law degree program geared toward English-speaking Israelis four years ago, the College of Law and Business in Ramat Gan wanted to create an undergraduate program that would attract English-speaking students from abroad.

The college, which calls itself “a nonprofit self-supporting institution,” asked Shlomo “Momo” Lifshitz, an Israeli businessman who helped turn the word “Birthright” into a household name, to come up with a unique program and then market it.

“Nobody else in Israel offers these services as well as he does,” explained Moshe Cohen-Eliya, president of the College of Law and Business. “He’s extremely well-connected and knows the Jewish communities abroad
inside out.”

When it comes to recruiting foreign students, “Momo is never patronizing,” Cohen-Eliya said. “He tells students, ‘I know you’re trying to figure out your next steps in life and the world is in your hands. Why not take advantage of it and study in Israel?’ He helps them figure out what’s best for them.”

During his long career, Lifshitz, the founder of Oranim Educational Initiatives (once the largest organizer of Birthright tours), brought more than 50,000 participants on 1,200 Birthright tours before selling the firm to the national Egged Bus company five years ago. 

Unwilling to retire even though he could, Lifshitz, now 59, created Lirom Global Education — Study in Israel LLC, a company that helps create and promote more than 20 Israel-based degree- and non-degree programs ( earmarked for English speakers from abroad.

Lifshitz helped launch a one-year master of arts degree program in Jewish education at Hebrew University’s Melton Centre for Jewish Education in March, the first distance-learning program of its kind at the university. Students take about four online courses during each of two semesters, from anywhere in the world, and spend six weeks of intensive summer study on the university’s Jerusalem campus. The total price is $16,250. 

In light of the program’s initial success and because of the flexibility of the distance-learning component, the Melton Centre will offer additional starting dates in October and next March. 

This autumn, the College of Law and Business will launch a three-year business degree program that focuses on globalization and commercial law. During the first two years, students will study in Israel, and in the final year at Long Island University at the Brooklyn campus’ School of Business. Taught entirely in English, the program is intended to offer opportunities for students around the world looking to graduate with two degrees — an American university degree and an Israeli degree — while gaining international perspective and experience. Annual tuition in Israel is $10,000, while the Long Island University portion costs $34,000. 

In October, the College of Law and Business also will launch a four-year, dual-track law program that will provide students with a bachelor’s of law and a bachelor’s in business. The courses take place in Israel, and graduates are eligible to take the New York state and Israeli bar exams. 

The business courses are taught entirely in English, while half of the law courses are taught in Hebrew and half in English. The college promises to provide support for English-speaking students in Hebrew-taught courses, including allowing them to submit assignments and exams in English. During the first year, which is taught in English, students take an intensive legal Hebrew ulpan.

The program provides internships and workshops in such places as Harvard, Oxford and the International Chamber of Commerce in Paris, plus study tours in China to provide professional international experiences and perspectives. The price is $12,000 per year for the dual track, study tours and international internships.

Starting next March, there also will be a “Study & Intern” option (which provides academic credits through Ben-Gurion University of the Negev) to spend nearly five months in Eilat on a program offering an academic internship in hotel management and hospitality. The program consists of six days of activities per week, with two days dedicated to academic studies and four days to professional internships.

A second “Study & Intern” track, also starting next March and also through Ben-Gurion University’s Eilat campus, will offer culinary students and recent graduates the opportunity to learn how to prepare Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine in a kosher environment. The entire cost of the five-month internship programs, including tours of Israel, accommodations, three meals a day and in-country transportation, is $1,500.

Lifshitz, a proud Zionist, views his work as a Zionist enterprise. He also receives a commission when he successfully recruits students.

“I decided I couldn’t allow my passion and drive to be wasted [in retirement] without doing something I feel is so important — to provide students the opportunity to get an education in Israel.

“I understood the cost of higher education in America and some other places and want to tell people loud and clear: There are options other than paying $40,000, $50,000 or $60,000 per year for a bachelor’s degree, especially when we know a bachelor’s isn’t enough in today’s world. You need to go to grad school, and people are carrying debt till the age of 50. Guys, open your eyes.”

Lifshitz’s initial goal is to bring 5,000 foreign students to Israel for long- and short-term programs.

“It can be for a summer course, a semester, a bachelor’s or master’s. We’re a one-stop shop for many study opportunities in Israel.”

The education maven says the Hebrew University Jewish Education master’s will enable busy educators to get a master’s degree at the Melton Centre almost entirely online.

“Let’s say you’re an American educator or working in a Jewish organization or a JCC or a Hillel. You can work while you’re doing it.”

The Hebrew University program, Lifshitz said, “is ‘Israel Inside.’ There’s a lot of focus on how to teach Israel” in the curriculum.

Lifshitz hopes Jewish organizations and institutions in the U.S. will help their employees with the tuition costs. (Some scholarship funds may be available, as well, and Jewish students can explore scholarships through Masa Israel.)

“They’ll get a better employee. Hebrew U. is a top university,” he said.

Marcelo Dorfsman, director of the master’s in Jewish Education program, said the master’s is intended “to help Jewish communities around the world” train top-notch Jewish educators “in an open, pluralistic environment.”

Educators from all streams of Judaism are expected to take the course and spend six weeks in Jerusalem in the same classroom. 

While overseas programs bring much-needed revenue to Israel’s cash-strapped universities, Lifshitz said, they also are an opportunity to share Israel’s innovation and expertise with Jewish and non-Jewish students who might otherwise never get to know Israel and its people. 

“We have the greatest minds, the greatest scientists, the greatest high- tech. They don’t call us the ‘startup nation’ for nothing.” 

Terrorism in Israel: U.S. actions speak louder than words

In late June of this year, I returned from an enlightening journey to Israel after embarking on a trip sponsored by Birthright Israel, a program that sends thousands of Jewish teens and young adults to tour Israel. I traveled with my sister, Lauren, and we were amazed by the Jewish culture and history we were immediately immersed in as soon as we stepped on our El AL flight to Tel Aviv from JFK. As soon as the “fasten seat-belt” sign went off, an orthodox Jewish man went around the flight to bless some of the Birthright participants with Tiffilin (a set of two black boxes containing verses from the Torah) and I was one of the lucky ones. From that point onward, my travels in Israel—ranging from a spiritual stop at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, to a fun visit at the Dead Sea—were incredible experiences that opened up the floodgates to my family’s history and customs. During my travels in Israel, signs of the precarious and ominous state of geopolitical security of the small Jewish state were ever-present. After traveling to Israel and experiencing firsthand the vibrant culture of the only true democracy in the Middle East, I was frustrated and angered more than ever by the media and our current President’s unjust treatment of a nation surrounded by enemies and danger on all borders. Nothing was more enraging to me, however, than to observe the Obama administration’s handling of the barbaric murder of a thirteen-year-old American-Israeli girl in the West Bank only three days after I returned from Israel.

Hallel Ariel was brutally murdered in her sleep by a seventeen-year-old Palestinian terrorist in a West Bank settlement, where her family lived. Photos of the scene released by the Israeli government showed sickening pools of blood in a brightly decorated child’s room. Security forces killed the assailant shortly after the murder and the Israeli government reacted immediately, canceling work visas previously granted to the killer’s family and establishing more security at the settlement. Our government’s response, however, was far less impressive; Jon Kirby, a State Department spokesman, condemned “in the strongest terms” the horrific terrorist attack.

This type of mechanical, unemotional statement from the Obama administration has only become the new norm from our country when responding to Palestinian terrorism. In fact, on June 8th, only a few weeks before I arrived in Israel, Hamas militants killed four Israelis at a Tel Aviv shopping district, an attack which the Obama administration condemned “in the strongest possible terms”. On November 19, 2015, another American-Israeli, Eric Schwartz was killed as he was gunned down by a Palestinian terrorist in the West Bank. President Obama, at a press conference that Sunday, three days later, delivered kind remarks regarding the deaths of two American citizens killed in terrorist attacks in Mali and France earlier that same week. Curiously, Eric Schwartz was never mentioned by President Obama during that press conference in which he mourned two other American citizens also killed abroad. After over 50,000 Americans signed a petition calling for the White House to acknowledge and condemn the murder of Schwartz, the Obama administration yet again condemned the attack “in the strongest possible terms”, a statement that carries less and less weight with every monotonous recitation by members of the Obama administration.

Following the devastating terrorist attacks in Paris in October of 2015, the State Department rightfully declared the act as “evil, heinous, and vile” in a powerful statement calling on the world “to fight back against what can only be considered an assault on our common humanity”. The White House is clearly concerned with the barbarity of terrorism, so I’d like to ask the State Department why this clear display of emotional outrage has consistently been missing when Israeli-Americans are murdered in cold blood. Perhaps the death of half-Israelis—or Jews—is far less concerning to President Obama than the deaths of others. I have been to Israel and I have spoken at length with its people. Our President’s continuously passive and reluctant words of “strong condemnation” do nothing to stop Palestinian terrorism or show solidarity with the Israeli people.

President Obama’s lethargic approach to speaking out against Palestinian terrorism is far less detrimental than his deliberate actions to strengthen Hamas, the terrorist organization governing the Gaza Strip, or diplomatically weaken Israel. In his famous address to the Arab world in Cairo, the President remarked “…Israel must also live up to its obligation to ensure that Palestinians can live and work and develop their society…the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel's security.” The United States has a famous policy never to negotiate with terrorists, yet urges Israel to dutifully complete its “obligation” to ensure the development of Palestinian society in the Gaza Strip, an area governed by a group the United States lists as a terrorist organization. This screaming hypocrisy is seemingly ignored by President Obama’s administration.

Because of security concerns, Israel has maintained an embargo of potentially dangerous goods into the Gaza Strip, including building materials such as cement, from 2007 to the present. The Israeli government loosened the ban on building materials—after being pressured by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—to allow for the reconstruction of Palestinian infrastructure damaged in past wars. Cement flooded into the Gaza strip and the reconstruction was finally set to begin. However, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry Director, roughly 95% of all cement bags that entered the Gaza strip for humanitarian purposes were stolen by Hamas to build the infamous underground tunnel network used to conduct terrorism against innocent Israeli civilians in the Gaza War of 2014. To blame Israel for not attempting to alleviate the concerning humanitarian situation in Gaza is not only factually erroneous but also diplomatically dangerous to Israel; rather than focus on the heinous acts committed by Hamas, a group that calls for the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people in its charter, the international community, with President Obama at the helm, instead points to Israel’s settlement expansion in the West Bank as a justification for terrorism originating in Gaza.

Since becoming politically active, I’ve always been a staunch supporter of Israel on cultural, ideological and logical grounds. My trip to Israel only reinforced those beliefs and once again reminded me of the double standard President Obama has practiced when it comes to Israel and the deaths of American Jews in Israel. While I never felt endangered in Israel, a small news story that barely garnered a few minutes on major news channels shocked me deeply: an El AL flight out of JFK to Tel Aviv, the same kind of flight I had taken to Israel, was escorted by French and Swiss jets to Israel following a bomb threat. Luckily there was no bomb and therefore no casualities. I was immediately thankful for my own safe return to my home in America, and then somberly considered for a moment that I could have been on that plane if my trip had been only two weeks later. But then I thought of the people actually on that plane. Surely there were other Jewish kids my age traveling to Israel as part of some Birthright program. I wondered, if that plane had been bombed and the passengers murdered simply because they were Israelis or Jews, how would President Obama have responded? Based on his past actions? Another “strong condemnation” from a monotonous, disinterested state department spokesperson.

Birthright trip offering college credits for first time

The first Birthright trip offering participants academic credit is now in Israel.

Some 50 students from colleges and universities in the United States are participating in the inaugural cohort and will be entitled to three academic credits at their academic institutions, according to Taglit Birthright.

They will attend courses at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, or IDC, and at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev during their two-week stay.

At the IDC, the students will learn about “The challenge of terrorism in Israel and the Middle East” and visit an Iron Dome battery in the field. At Ben-Gurion, they will study “Global Warming, Renewable Energy and the Desert Ecosystem,” which includes snorkeling in the coral reef in Eilat.

Birthright Israel provides a free 10-day to two-week trip to Israel for Jews aged 18 to 26.

‘Reverse Birthright’ gives Israelis a look at America’s Jews, from Philip Roth to the Three Stooges

Instead of visiting the Western Wall, they visited Ellis Island. Instead of hiking in the Negev Desert, they took a day trip to a Habonim-Dror summer camp. Instead of basking in the sun on the Tel Aviv beach, they watched clips of the Three Stooges mocking the Nazis.

And instead of Birthright, a 10-day trip meant to acquaint American Jews with Israel, a cohort of Israeli graduate students participated in a 10-day trip to get to know American Jews.

The trip, which began June 18, is the highlight of a yearlong master’s degree program at Haifa University, the Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies. The program teaches 25 students about American Jewish history, religion and culture to have them better understand and identify with their American counterparts.

“In Israel they don’t teach about Jewish Americans,” said Haifa University history professor Gur Alroey, who runs the program. “American universities are full of Israel studies departments. It’s important that Israelis will understand that they live in Israel but they’re not alone.”

In the program, students attend class all day once a week, allowing them to work on the side. Classes cover everything from American Jewish immigration and American Zionist movements to American Jewish culture and contemporary issues.

Along with history books like Arthur Hertzberg’s “The Jews in America” and Jonathan Sarna’s “American Judaism,” students read excerpts from “Portnoy’s Complaint” by Philip Roth and some Three Stooges films from the late 1930s. They also looked at how Hebrew translation to English changed as American Jews grew more assertively Zionist.

Omri Asscher, who teaches a course on American Jewish culture and identity, said students already appreciated cultural touchstones like “Seinfeld,” or superheroes like Batman and Superman, before knowing or caring that they were created by American Jews. But Asscher said a cultural disconnect remained. His students, for example, had trouble appreciating the role decorative objects — “tchotchkes” like a cup with Hebrew writing or even a Jewish National Fund charity box — played in solidifying communal Jewish identity.

“We talked about how being a Jew in America is a question of choice,” Asscher said. “You can choose to be, and you can choose not to be. And if you choose to be, you need to be active in that regard. That’s not a given in Israel.”

The program attracts some 100 applicants each year, but the 25 students don’t necessarily reflect the average Israeli. Many have had experiences with non-Orthodox movements, which have a scant presence in Israel. A few are studying to be Reform rabbis. Others have lived abroad for long periods of time.

The trip is billed as a “reverse Birthright,” and aims to get Israelis to like American Jews in the same way Birthright aims to create pro-Israel Americans. But while Birthright has brought more than half a million young Jews to Israel, the master’s program is orders of magnitude smaller. Sarna, who teaches American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said the program aims for depth of impact rather than breadth.

“The Birthright people don’t have much preparation beforehand; these people are getting an M.A.,” Sarna said. “I don’t see these folks like Birthright participants in [terms of] numbers. I see these folks as future leaders.”

On the trip, which takes place entirely in New York, the students hear from leaders of all four major denominations and meet with a range of Jewish organizations. They explore the history of Jewish immigration to America, visiting Ellis Island as well as the Tenement Museum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Along with “Fiddler on the Roof,” they attend a Yiddish theater performance and see a documentary on American Jews in film. The trip also includes a lecture by journalist Peter Beinart, a self-described liberal Zionist.

A few students said they were surprised by how much American Jewish movements have in common, even as they emphasize their differences. Almost everyone they meet, said student Yehuda Lahav, speaks positively about the LGBT community.

“I don’t know if they realize that the direction all the streams are going is the same,” he said. “Some have been there for a while, some will get there in the future. None of them see a contradiction between Jewish life and American life.”

The students are largely bullish about the American Jewish community and the values it represents. Some praised American Jewry’s pluralism and downplayed the challenges and divisions that afflict its subgroups. Israelis, a few suggested, have much to learn from Judaism’s success in America’s free market of religion.

“American Judaism, despite the challenges and problems it’s facing, can embody a different and in many ways positive model of Judaism that is very important for us in Israel to know,” student Assaf Gamzou said. “Israelis a lot of the time have a very monolithic sense of themselves and our place. Sometimes we think Israel is the center of Jewish experience, but it is not necessarily so.”

Birthright group asks alum to lobby Congress against Iran Nuclear deal

On Tuesday, a New York-based Birthright Israel alumni group sent an email to all of its members urging them to lobby Congress to reject the nuclear arms agreement between Iran and the United States.

The email, however, does not speak for the national and global Birthright Israel organization, according to the latter’s president.

[POLL: Do you support the Iran nuclear deal?]

The rejection appeal was spelled out in a mass email to the membership, using the logo of the Birthright Israel Foundation, which appealed to members to “Help the State of Israel by contacting your congressman and senator and requesting that they reject this deal and override President Obama’s veto of their decision.”

The non-profit Birthright Israel Foundation underwrites the program of sending young Jewish adults from the United States and around the globe for 10-day organized trips to Israel to strengthen Jewish identity, communities and ties to Israel.

Rebecca Sugar, executive director of The Alumni Community, said that the appeal had been emailed to some 35,000 former participants of Birthright Israel, residing primarily in New York City, but also in parts of New Jersey and Connecticut.

Sugar said that she was very happy with the decision to launch the appeal to Congress and hoped that other Jewish organizations would follow suit. “This is an existential moment for Israel and we should all care about that,” she said.

She noted that the alumni group had not consulted with the Birthright Israel Foundation or its leadership before launching and publicizing the appeal to influence Congress.

There is no similar alumni group anywhere else in the United States, and Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, confirmed that no such group exists in the Los Angeles area.

He estimated that 35,000 to 40,000 former Birthright Israel participants reside in Los Angeles County.

David Fisher, president of the Birthright Israel Foundation, headquartered in New York, confirmed that he had received no advance notice of the action by the alumni group, which he described as a separate organization, with no ties to the foundation.

Asked whether the alumni group’s initiative might be interpreted as an intervention by his non-profit organization in a highly emotional political issue, Fisher declined comment.

Young couples now getting Birthright-style ‘honeymoons’ in Israel

Jay and Mikelle sat next to each other on the bus as it ascended the road to Jerusalem.

Later the same day they accompanied each other on an emotional trip to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum. The next day they planned to trek up to the desert fortress at Masada and swim together in the Dead Sea.

During its week-and-a-half journey through Israel, their bus would stop so they could hike up north and relax at the beach in Tel Aviv. Some of the group had been here before; for others it was their first time.

But unlike the hundreds of Taglit-Birthright Israel buses that traverse Israel every year, there were no random hookups on this tour. Its participants were couples, some with children. About a third of the participants weren’t Jewish.

Called Honeymoon Israel, the trip is a “Birthright” for married couples aged 25 to 40. Like Birthright — the free 10-day journeys to Israel for 18- to 26-year-old Jews — the couples’ excursion hopes to foster Jewish identity in its participants as they are settling down and having kids. Acknowledging the growing number of intermarried families, the trip mandates that only one of the two partners be Jewish.

“We plan on raising our household Jewish,” said Jay Belfore, a trip participant who was raised Catholic and whose wife, Mikelle, is Jewish. “In order for me to gain a better understanding of the culture, seeing Israel is important to us.”

On their second date, Mikelle told Jay that she wanted to raise Jewish children. Jay appreciates Judaism’s emphasis on family, and said the trip has given him a frame of reference for Jewish life, teaching him about the origins of holidays and customs. The couple has two children, 3 and 1.

“My hope was that Jay would learn about Judaism on a deeper level and would feel more involved in our children’s upbringing,” Mikelle said. “Honeymoon Israel has created a safe place for couples in similar situations.”

That safe place is the trip’s goal, said Honeymoon Israel co-CEO Avi Rubel, who launched the project with co-CEO Mike Wise. Families and Jewish communities at home can be judgmental of intermarried couples or those without much Jewish background, he said, and coming to Israel together allows them to have an immersive and supportive Jewish experience.

“What if they did feel welcome and not judged, and at home in the Jewish community?” said Rubel, formerly the founding North American director of Masa Israel Journey, which coordinates long-term Israel programs for young people. “Then at this time they’re looking for meaning, and they would find it in the Jewish community.”

Honeymoon Israel’s two pilot trips, from Los Angeles and Phoenix, arrived in late May with 20 couples each. There was an outsize demand — 85 couples applied from Los Angeles and 51 from Phoenix — and interviews were part of the process.

While the trip’s total expenses add up to about $10,000 per couple, the couples pay only $1,800. The Boston-based Jacobson Family Foundation is the primary funder. The trip is not linked to Taglit-Birthright Israel, which is paid for in part by the Israeli government.

Rubel and Wise, the former CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Buffalo in New York, hope to run 50 Honeymoon Israel trips a year.

Such initiatives, said Jewish sociologist Steven M. Cohen, are crucial in light of the results of the Pew Research Center’s 2013 “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” which showed that 71 percent of non-Orthodox Jews were intermarrying. Showing intermarried couples a Jewish society, Cohen said, can give the non-Jewish spouse a larger context to connect personally to Judaism.

“Being Jewish in yourself is connected with being Jewish in your family, in your community and in your people,” said Cohen, a research professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “These circles of social identity are layered from top to bottom.”

Honeymoon Israel is one of a few imitation Birthright programs to emerge in recent years. The Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project runs eight-day group trips to Israel for Jewish mothers. An organization called Covenant Journey plans to bring groups of Evangelical Christian youth to Israel for subsidized trips starting this year.

Honeymoon Israel takes its participants across the country, but spends more time in Tel Aviv than most Birthright trips, aiming to show Israel’s modern culture as well as its historical and biblical sites. Participants on the Phoenix trip did Havdalah, the closing ceremony of Shabbat, with Beit Tefillah Israeli, a liberal prayer group that meets on the beach. And the group spent a day in northern Israel learning about coexistence efforts between Arabs and Jews.

“This is not a Disney World trip,” Rubel said. “We want people to see Israel in all its complexity. We want people to have a positive experience in Israel. We think part of doing that is giving people a chance to see the whole picture.”

The trips also aim to maintain connections among the couples after they return to their home city. Couples met at a Shabbat dinner before the trip, and monthly Shabbat dinners are planned for when they return. A trip staff member will also be available to meet with the couples back home.

“In this modern world where we have almost no boundaries, the new face of Jews is definitely an international one,” said Khai Ling Tan, who was born in Malaysia and whose husband, Jonathan Levine, is Jewish.  “You don’t want to be exclusive because when you do that, your world becomes smaller and smaller and smaller.”

Rethinking the ‘Birthright’: A trip to the Israel for adults

Birthright trips to Israel are the ultimate opportunity for young Jewish adults to get face-to-face with the places and history that shape their Jewish identity. But what about more mature adults who never got that chance?

Stacy Wasserman believes she has the answer in her L’Dor V’Dor (From Generation to Generation) program, which provides partially subsidized, 12- to 14-day trips to the Holy Land for people 55 and over, who have either never been to Israel or haven’t been in at least 30 years. The program is financed by a foundation she developed with money willed to her by her father, which she named for him: The Dr. Jesse L. Simon Charitable Foundation.

“We were smart to create the Birthright program for young people, but we haven’t done as good a job with other parts of the community,” said Wasserman, 58, of Thousand Oaks. “As many people realize what they’ve missed by not visiting Israel, going there is definitely on their bucket lists. We’re empowering them to act upon what we all promise ourselves at Passover: ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ ”

The nonprofit sent its first group to Israel in February 2012, followed by others annually, each accommodating a maximum of 40 people. So far, a total of about 200 people have participated on the trips.

This year, there are two trips: a spring sojourn April 23 to May 4 ($2,350 per person, not including airfare), and another in the fall, Oct. 16-28 ($2,650 per person). There is an application and selection process (available online at involved for inclusion, as well as a hard-set rule that people can only take this trip once. Registration for the fall trip opened April 5. 

Wasserman said she is seeking additional charitable donations to the program, because there is only enough money in the foundation to fund three or four more trips. For this year’s spring trip, for example, the foundation is contributing about $900 per person on top of what participants pay.

Itineraries for each trip vary, but they all include sites that capture Israel’s past, present and future: a kibbutz, the Western Wall, Masada, the Dead Sea, wineries, various marketplaces and a visit to the Knesset.

Although Wasserman describes each journey as the “trip of a lifetime” for her travelers — average age is between 68 and 73 — she stresses that they experience the real Israel rather than a luxury jaunt and do lots of walking. Hotels are generally modest, and there are a few days where the lodgings are tents. In other words, similar to the way things are done on a Birthright trip.  

Wasserman made her first trip to Israel in 1980 at age 22 to live on a kibbutz, and ended up exploring the country for a year. Her big moment of discovery was encountering the Western Wall and pondering the number of generations it had been standing.

She went on to build a career as a preschool teacher and Jewish preschool owner in Canoga Park, but always knew deep down that one’s discovering of what makes Israel “Israel”  changes as one gets older, prompting her to start planning a return trip. The genesis of the L’Dor V’Dor program, in turn, stemmed from trying to convince her hesitant husband, Morrey, to join her.

“I had to think of a way to get him to go to Israel so I could return,” she said. “I [also realized] that it is not enough to just send our children or grandchildren to Israel. … If my husband was hesitant about going, there had to be many others afraid to go for a variety of reasons.” 

And there were other important things to think about, like how such trips offer people “an opportunity for them to show their support for Israel by physically going there.”

San Fernando Valley residents who were on last year’s fall trip had distinctly different reasons for going, but they all reported that the shared experience of exploring Israel was life changing.

Harriet Wasserman (no relation to Stacy), 75, of Tarzana, a former ICM agent, traveled the world extensively. However, Israel was a notable exception, as her husband, Ted, had been afraid to go. When they made the trip with L’Dor V’Dor, both found themselves profoundly transformed.

“My husband was never bar mitzvahed, but on the dinner of our last night, he got up with tears coming down his face and told the group, ‘Now I know what it means to be a Jew,’ ” she said. “The first time I touched the Wall, it really was like coming home.”

Although Tarzana resident Linda Hyman, 73, and her husband traveled to Israel in the 1970s, they found this trip to be particularly affirming of their Jewish identities. 

“Although we could not go to the Mount of Olives, we went to the [Haas] Promenade [in Talpiot] for a blessing. Stacy brought a large challah, grape juice and wine, and we all came together in a circle with the blessing,” Hyman said. “We were overlooking Jerusalem, and when we said the blessing, at that moment I knew that I was Jewish.” 

Steven Young, a lawyer from Tarzana born in 1948 — the same year as Israel — said L’Dor V’Dor’s itinerary made the perfect trip to Israel possible on many levels. 

“My religious connection was deepened by seeing the Wailing Wall and touring the base of the outer walls of the city,” he said. “It is incredible to see firsthand the physical and visual perception of how old and how deep our roots are as a religion. 

“When touring Tel Aviv, I saw [an intriguing mix of] the Old City mixed with the new — high-tech companies, a thriving economy and architecture.”

Although never a fan of men’s jewelry, he was moved to purchase an Israeli-made Star of David, which he has not taken off since the trip.

Like Harriet Wasserman, Marlene Miller, 78, of Woodland Hills had long wanted to see Israel, but had not made the journey because of her husband’s concerns. She ended up going on her own with L’Dor V’Dor, and although she went “in the middle of the last Gaza situation,” she swears she felt safer there than here.

“Unless you see these sites in person, you’re not really seeing them,” Miller said. 

Fred Levine of Oak Park said, “Yad Vashem was emotional for me, while The Museum [of the Diaspora] at Tel Aviv University reflected the reality that no matter where we are in the world, our customs, traditions and values are everlasting and we all originate from a common history. Being at Independence Hall and listening to [David] Ben-Gurion announce the independent State of Israel and then the playing of ‘Hatikvah’ was the prefect conclusion to the trip.”

In an affirmation of what Stacy Wasserman hopes to accomplish with L’Dor V’Dor, Levine said he sent his daughter, Rachel, a picture of himself and his wife, Sue, in front of the Israeli flag at Masada. Two seconds later, Rachel sent them back a photo of herself — at the same spot one year earlier.

Social justice group brings Birthright youth to South Tel Aviv

One muggy afternoon in December, a tour bus carrying a football team’s worth of young Los Angeles Jews pulled up to a dirty curb in South Tel Aviv. It was their fourth day of Birthright, and they were scheduled for a tour of Tel Aviv’s notorious bottom half. 

After they exited the bus, one petite L.A. woman in head-to-toe sportswear grimaced and held a tissue to her nose, blocking the neighborhood stench. “I feel like there are a lot of homeless people here,” her friend whispered.

BINA Secular Yeshiva’s director of international seminars and communication, Elliot Glassenberg (right), led a Birthright group from Los Angeles on a tour of South Tel Aviv on Dec. 18.

“Anybody know the name of the neighborhood we’re in?” asked their guide, Elliot Glassenberg, director of international seminars and communication for the BINA Secular Yeshiva, a Jewish school and social action center in South Tel Aviv. The yeshiva is funded in part by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

“The name of the neighborhood is Neve Shaanan, which means ‘oasis of serenity,’ ” Glassenberg said. “You feeling it?”

The group laughed nervously. Their tour of South Tel Aviv — one of about a dozen Birthright tours scheduled at the BINA Secular Yeshiva throughout the program’s current winter season — had been arranged and financed not by the umbrella Birthright organization but by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, one of Birthright’s many partners. (Another two-dozen Birthright tours of South Tel Aviv were scheduled for summer 2014, but were all canceled because of the war.)

“There are a lot of moving parts” to the Birthright funding structure, Birthright spokeswoman Pamela Fertel Weinstein said in an interview. When Federations from different U.S. cities put money toward a Birthright bus, she said, they have the option to include a couple of stops in the itinerary that correspond with “things The Federation is supporting” — in this case, the BINA Secular Yeshiva.

For security reasons, Birthright groups are not allowed to travel into the West Bank or Gaza — not even the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. But what is perhaps Israel’s second most controversial demographic conflict — the government’s struggle to expel 50,000 undocumented African immigrants — is easily accessible from within the confines of Tel Aviv, Israel’s sexiest, most contemporary city.

Weinstein said BINA’s tour of South Tel Aviv is “an approved site visit under the Talmud/Torah educational category,” but is not one of the “certain places everyone must visit,” such as the Western Wall or Masada. 

However, Birthright’s policy toward these offbeat tours appears to have shifted in recent months. According to Sarah Austin, head of Birthright programming for the L.A. Federation, the BINA tour — which had been supplemented by Birthright in past seasons — is no longer covered.

“It’s not supplemented within our normal visit,” Austin said. “Seasons before, we didn’t have to pay for the visit. I don’t know why, but something changed.”

Weinstein said she was not aware of this change.

The L.A. Federation was willing to pay for the tour itself, Austin said, because it felt strongly about the value of visiting South Tel Aviv. “It’s important that people see there’s a bunch of different ways to be Jewish — that Israel is not just a tourist country,” she said.

On the Dec. 18 tour, Glassenberg tread carefully while telling his abridged history of the neighborhood. “In 1921, there were, um, well, riots — er — tensions between Jews and Arabs in Jaffa,” he said.

So a group of a few hundred Zionists, he explained, moved north to the lower outskirts of Tel Aviv, where they founded Neve Shaanan — an idyllic agricultural village with streets in the shape of a menorah. Their vision was for Neve Shaanan’s crops to feed the middle classes up in Tel Aviv proper. But “as an agricultural experiment, it quickly failed,” Glassenberg said, and Neve Shaanan soon became known as an immigrant neighborhood — not unlike “the Lower East Side of New York or the South Side of Chicago.”

“It’s almost a microcosm of Israel,” Glassenberg told the Birthright group. “A little piece of every wave of immigration has come to this neighborhood.”

He pointed out architecture left behind by each wave of immigrants. The first wave was of European Jews, post-Holocaust. Then, in the 1970s, Middle Eastern Jews arrived from countries such as Morocco, Syria and Iran. In the 1990s, around 1 million Russians — some Jewish, some not — escaped to Israel after the fall of the Soviet Union. And later on in the ’90s, following the First Intifada, migrant workers flooded in from Asia and Eastern Europe — arriving to fill blue-collar posts formerly filled by Palestinians. By 2008, there were approximately 300,000 foreign workers in Israel.

But the most recent influx of around 50,000 Eritrean and Sudanese work migrants and asylum seekers has been one of the most dramatic. It has transformed the area surrounding the dilapidated Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, where most of them came to live, into what locals call “Little Africa.”

Neve Shaanan’s street signs are written in a mishmash of Hebrew, Russian, Arabic, Amharic (Ethiopian) and Tigrinya (Eritrean). Cafe windows steam with fragrant African stews and breads. Groups of unemployed Eritrean and Sudanese men — and some women — cluster in South Tel Aviv’s central Levinksy Park, lining benches and sitting or sleeping in the grass. Many of the neighborhood’s homes are barely standing, covered only with sheet metal or tarps to protect them from the weather.

Walking down Neve Shaanan Street, some Birthright kids looked bewildered, others inspired. “It reminds me of L.A. in some ways — certain parts of L.A. where you’ve got the Blacks, the Mexicans, the Asians all in one place,” participant Erik Knipprath said.

Oren Peleg, a Disney employee (and occasional contributor to the Jewish Journal) who was on his third Birthright trip working as a staff member, said he’d “never done anything like this” on prior trips. “I was talking to the [Birthright] soldiers and they were saying, ‘It’s a grimy neighborhood, we never come here,’ ” Peleg said. “But I see a lot of character.”

When the group reached a free community library in the middle of Levinksy Park, set up by Israeli volunteers and featuring books in 16 different languages, Glassenberg delved further into the debate.

“Israel in 2011 realized this was becoming a major problem,” he said of the African influx. “So they did a few things: First, they built a fence along the border with Egypt so people are no longer entering. So there are now about 50,000 asylum seekers in Israel, but nobody else can come in. But they decided that now — instead of getting a free bus ticket and a visa — they would now be considered illegal infiltrators and they would be given three years in prison.”

Glassenberg then gave the floor to Birthrighters, asking them how they felt about so many foreigners moving into an Israeli neighborhood. “It’s an ongoing discussion,” he said. “What does it mean to be a Jewish state? How can you have, in the Hebrew city of Tel Aviv, 50,000 foreigners? That’s a significant chunk of the population, in a country of 8 million people. What does it mean?”

One participant responded: “It’s tough if everyone meets this [refugee] requirement. What can you do?” Another asked: “Maybe they could make aliyah?”

As the group continued to discuss, an elderly Israeli resident of South Tel Aviv pulled a couple of Birthright boys to the side, telling them in a hushed voice about how dangerous the neighborhood had become since Africans moved in. 

A few more blocks into the tour, Glassenberg ran into his friend Walyaldin Suliman, a Darfuri refugee who now runs a barbershop in Neve Shaanan.

Somewhat reluctantly, Suliman tried to sum up one of Israel’s most complex issues in a five-minute pitch: “I have 2 1/2 years in Israel,” he told the group. “I’m living, but I didn’t get the status of refugee. I only have a visa to stay. And now the visa is not a solution, because the government made a new decision to take everybody for 20 months in the Holot prison. This is a big prison in the desert. They take people to the desert prison because they come from Africa.

“More than 2,000 Sudanese and Eritreans are now in prison,” Suliman said. “In prison, they push you to go back to your country. But when you go back, and you arrive at the airport, the security men of the government of Sudan catch you.”

After the walking tour, BINA organizers told the Journal that their tours’ most educational moments often come when an Israeli or African approaches the group.

“We don’t want to be this foreign element just wandering through their neighborhood,” said Dan Herman, director of the Tikkun Olam post-college volunteer program (a joint project of BINA and the Daniel Centers for Progressive Judaism). “We want to be responsive to the neighborhood, not to force our solution or force our ideals.”

Multiple participants on this Federation-funded Birthright trip told the Journal that South Tel Aviv turned out to be the highlight of their itinerary.

“This is the most interesting thing we’ve done,” said Ariel Thomas, a 23-year-old Hawaii native with Jamaican roots. “I was looking forward to it — especially because we couldn’t stop talking about what happened at customs.”

According to Thomas, she and a handful of other Birthright participants from minority racial groups had been interrogated for hours at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion International Airport — an experience that made them question whether they were welcome in Israel. “They didn’t believe we were Jewish,” she said of airport security officers. “I thought they weren’t going to let me in. So I thought, ‘I wonder if they’re racist because of the immigrants.’ ”

Avila Santo, 23, a Los Angeles artist, said he was “surprised but happy” that Birthright had allowed the BINA tour. “I think it’s very important because it allows you to question Jewish identity, what it means to be a Jew and what it means to care about your neighbor, right here in Tel Aviv — it was great to see.”

But Santo realized that the visit might not work with every group. “Even in this group, which is very secular, it’s very sparked,” he said.

Indeed, during a discussion session following the South Tel Aviv tour, a 22-year-old Israeli soldier accompanying the trip called the Africans ungrateful. “I know it’s hard to live here, but it’s such a better place for them than in Sudan and Eritrea,” he said. “In Egypt, they shoot them. In Europe, in a lot of countries, they put them in jail. In Israel, they can live. So I think they just need to thank Israel.”

The soldier added: “They can cry about it and say Israel is stupid, but … they have such a better life here.” 

A male L.A. participant sitting next to him, who wished to remain anonymous, agreed with the soldier. “We still haven’t addressed the fact that they’re not citizens, though,” he said. “Shouldn’t our obligation be toward the people who are citizens first? The fact that they can make in a day here what they can make in two months in their country — it’s infinite times better than what they already have. Is that enough, or are we required to give more?”

Santo thought for a moment, then responded: “It’s kind of hard to have a cookie-cutter avenue for everyone to go through. Because some people can’t go back to their countries.” 

The group’s Israeli leader, Nadav Dori, said afterward that he believes more Birthright groups should come see South Tel Aviv. “[Glassenberg] has an agenda, and it’s obvious,” Dori said. “But it’s important that people bring up this subject to public opinion, because people who aren’t from Tel Aviv, it’s important that they see this. And it’s a very good subject to bring up specifically with Americans, because they’re dealing with the same thing in America.”

America’s own immigration debate did come up many times in discussion. “Sometimes I feel like they get more than we do,” Sasha Santos, 26, said of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who are eligible for college scholarships. “As Americans, we’re not getting the resources that we should be getting, and they’re getting them before us.”

Glassenberg told the Journal that simply starting this discussion was half the point of the tour, and fits into Birthright’s mission of engaging young Jews.

“If you open up a conversation and invite the participants to understand and take part, they respect that and they appreciate that, and they’re able to engage more positively in the conversation,” he said.

And most importantly, as a result, he added, “They feel more connected to Israel.”

BINA leaders, and others within the social Zionist movement, believe visits to the area might offer a way to modernize Birthright’s reputation in the eyes of politically aware Jewish youth — and help with Birthright registration numbers, which the organization has been attempting to increase.

A Haaretz news story from before the summer war dissected Birthright’s recent attempts to expand its PR reach. The piece cited a Birthright-commissioned survey finding “less affiliated Jews had not enrolled in Birthright amid concerns it would be too religious for them or push pro-Israel propaganda. More than half the respondents cited these two issues.” 

Although Birthright participation increased overall between 2011 and 2014 — from 33,000 to 43,000 participants — new registration hasn’t kept pace with rising donations and projected growth of the program.

Weinstein said Birthright is an “apolitical organization” that does not oppose trips to areas like South Tel Aviv. “We consider it a job well done if people come home and have more questions,” she said.

However, multiple other sources involved in organizing Birthright tours said they felt more resistance to exploring the area in recent months.

“I think there’s a natural fear of airing the dirty laundry,” Herman said. “A fear that if you show people [South Tel Aviv], you’re going to scare them off or be unfairly critical of Israel.”

However, he said, “Our generation was brought up learning to question things and be critical. You can’t ask them to put that on hold here. Because if you do, they’re not going to trust you.”

Herman’s program, Tikkun Olam, is one track available within the monthslong study abroad and post-college program Masa, known as an extended Birthright for the quarter-life-crisis crowd. Masa has been very public about its work with African immigrants, and has been sending young American Jews deep into dirty, messy South Tel Aviv through various programs for six to seven years now.

A 2013 study conducted by the Jewish Agency for Israel on the effects of longer-term programs such as Masa found that “exposure to Israel’s challenges and problems in the context of service work did not weaken participants’ commitment to and interest in the country. On the contrary, connection to the country and its people seems to have been consistently intensified by exposure to some of its most challenging realities.”

In the words of Noga Brenner Samia, deputy director of the BINA Secular Yeshiva: “Love is what’s left after you’ve seen the complexity and understood the reality.”

It’s Birthright Israel — for Jewish moms

On the surface, the tour looked much like a standard Birthright Israel trip: Participants celebrated Shabbat in Jerusalem’s Old City, swam in the Dead Sea and ascended the ancient mountain fortress at Masada. The trip was mostly free and organizers were prepared with follow-up programming after the participants returned home.

But the nearly 200 women who arrived in Jerusalem last week weren’t there for one of the free 10-day Jewish identity-building trips that Birthright has operated for more than a decade. They were participants in what has been described as Birthright for Jewish moms, an eight-day tour of the Jewish state for mothers.

Run by the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, or JWRP, the trip’s goals are much the same as that of the regular Birthright: strengthening Jewish identity and connection to Israel.

But the trip also has an explicitly religious component, with several events hosted by the Orthodox outreach organization Aish Hatorah. Some JWRP staff members are former Aish employees and several board members are also Aish donors.

And unlike Birthright, which is open to all Jews aged 18 to 26, the JWRP trip is open only to  women who are not traditional Sabbath observers – a sign that they already have strong connections to Judaism, JWRP’s founding director Lori Palatnik said.

“If you impact a 22-year-old boy, you impact a 22-year-old boy,” Palatnik said. “If you impact the mother, you can impact the whole family. If we want to have Jewish communities rise, a community lives and dies by where the women are.”

Some 5,000 women from 19 countries have taken the trip since JWRP was founded seven years ago. The trips are free aside from airfare and are partially funded by the Israeli government. They have become so popular that JWRP began running men’s trips last year.

“I thought I needed to find more balanced meaning and not be so wrapped up in life,” said Debra Aronson, 42, a non-Orthodox mother of two from Toronto. “For me it’s more of the spiritual aspect and our relationship with each other. It’s not for religion. I’m happy where I am religiously.”

The trip caters specifically to women in everything from the cuisine to the programming. The meals are lighter — fish and wine rather than the meat and beer on the men’s JWRP trip. The women visit a group children’s home and attend a cooking workshop, while the men visit an army base and see high-tech start-ups in Tel Aviv. To avoid conflicts over egalitarianism, group prayer is avoided altogether on the women’s trips.

Though most of the participants have been to Israel before, some said traveling with other women has allowed them to feel a sense community and warmth. Ellie Bass, who led a delegation from Toronto, said she’s enjoyed getting to know the other group members.

“The most fun has been hanging out in the hotel with a bottle of wine and snacks, and making each other laugh,” said Bass, who last came to Israel to perform in a dance company in 1997. “It’s that feeling of family.”

After the trip, participants must commit to attend follow-up seminars back home at least once a month either on Israel, relationships or community leadership. Palatnik hopes to build an infrastructure to guide the women into a more involved Jewish experience.

“We want this to be the springboard for their entry into their Jewish community, Jewish life and personal growth,” Palatnik said. “Some have been in Israel before, [but] their last memory was the soldiers are so cute. Now the soldiers are their sons’ age. At this age they’re taking life more seriously than when they were in their 20s.”



The true value of Birthright Israel

Sitting in a circle in coastal northern Israel, listening to a group of 46 American and Israeli Jews share their coming-out stories — stories of anxiety and relief, shame and pride, heartbreak and celebration — I realized that this trip was going to be different. 

It was my seventh time staffing a Birthright Israel trip, and this was a group of lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, queer and ally (LGBTQA) young adults, supported and organized by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ L.A. Way Birthright Israel Experience initiative and in partnership with JQ International, an organization dedicated to creating opportunities and visibility for LGBTQA Jews in Los Angeles.

I had agreed to staff this particular trip because I view myself as an ally to the LGBTQ community. I believed I would learn something new by seeing Israel through an LGBTQ lens, and I wanted to support a group of people who, I imagined, hadn’t always felt they’d had a seat at the proverbial Jewish table.

We started the trip like any other, with the craziness of reviewing Birthright Israel rules and jamming in dozens of site visits per day. Save for the fact that we didn’t divide rooms by gender, and we allowed more flexible and sensitive rooming guidelines, I didn’t initially think there was anything different about this trip. I assumed that just like other trips, at the end of 10 days, the participants would say their tearful goodbyes; some of their lives would be changed and many would resume as normal; and most of them would save a warm place for Israel in their hearts.

But when we visited Yad Vashem, I began to understand how special this group was. As we toured the facility, we became acutely aware that the majority of our group members would have been doubly persecuted during the Holocaust. In fact, as members of the LGBTQ community they would have been marginalized, vilified, brutalized and murdered even before the Jews. In Hitler’s world, and that of the Nazi fascists, they would have been the first to go. Also, this group was all too aware of what murder, suicide and violence look like today. More than any other group I’ve staffed, this group could relate to being hated simply because of who they are.

That evening, we decided to welcome Shabbat at the Western Wall. As we headed to the main pavilion, I began to worry that maybe they wouldn’t like this place. That regardless of the energy around the Western Wall, perhaps the politics surrounding it, the severe gender divides — women right, men left — would be too much of a shock and would jar them out of the utopia of egalitarianism we had created on our trip. I wanted to protect my participants, possibly to help them maintain the generous and inclusive image of the Israel they had experienced thus far. I didn’t want them to think that they might not have a place at every table in the global Jewish community; I wanted this trip to show them something beautiful that they never could have imagined. We had strived to create a haven of inclusion — would it all go to waste once we stood before one of the most significant sites for the Jewish people?

As we approached, I saw a huge group of soldiers singing Shabbat songs together on the plaza — men and women, all in uniform. I wish we could do that, too, I thought to myself. 

At that moment, the ring of soldiers opened up to welcome us. We flooded into the circle, joining hands with dozens of young Israelis, weaving into their group. In an instant, we formed a circle of more than a hundred young people, holding hands, singing songs, dancing and jumping, and shouting for joy in front of the Western Wall. From all corners of the world, all religious backgrounds, all sexual orientations and gender identities, we were living the dream of the Jewish people. It was truly a holy Shabbat experience.

More than any other trip I have staffed, this group understood the dichotomies of victimhood and victory, persecution and celebration, sorrow and joy, shame and pride that have so long shaped and defined the Jewish people. The collective Jewish narrative mirrored so many of their personal narratives, and to experience that realization with them has become one of the great privileges of my life.

Returning from our miraculous 10 days together, I have realized that the true value of Birthright Israel is to help young Jews from around the world and from all different backgrounds connect their stories to the Jewish story. It is an opportunity for them to sit at a Shabbat dinner table and be welcomed for exactly who they are — often for the first time in their lives. It is a moment of discovery — of the self and of community — of joining hands with their brothers and sisters from around the world, and of connecting to the shared pain and joy of our people.

Annie Lascoe is West Coast regional director for Masa Israel Journey, an organization that connects young adults with study, internship and volunteer opportunities in Israel.

Israeli-Americans Get Their Own Birthright Trip

When Eden Bennun — who had to give up on plans to attend a Birthright Israel trip this summer because of a job — heard about a new trip aimed specifically at Israeli-Americans, she thought: “It must be fate.”

Both of her parents were born in Israel, and, although she grew up in Los Angeles, almost every summer she boarded an El Al airliner to visit faraway family.

“I look forward to getting to meet more people like me, who are connected to the culture and language, and are ready to become young Jewish leaders,” said Bennun, a third-year psychology student at American Jewish University.

The new Taglit-Birthright Israel program, offered in conjunction with the Israeli American Council (IAC), will be called “I think it’s important to educate other people so they don’t have to go through what I went [through] and disconnect, and then connect again,” he said.

Eating my way through Israel on a Birthright trip

At first, the idea of going on a Birthright trip seemed silly, at best.  I’d already been to Israel, twice – once on a family trip when I was 15 and first exposed to lax drinking laws and Jewish college boys, and again before my senior year of high school, on a Write on Fellowship trip.

Both visits to Israel had been positive experiences, enough so that I attended a J Street conference in 2013 and subscribed to various Israel- related e-newsletters, but going back on an air-conditioned tour bus through Jerusalem, presumably with a group of people who were trying to brainwash me to make Aliyah, wasn’t high on my to-do list. There was so much more of the world to see, and my politics seemed far left of the Birthright agenda. 

When my mom (who else), sent me a link to the application for a culinary Birthright trip, I was slightly intrigued. I’d been working since my graduation in May 2013 as a freelance food writer and was about to embark on a month-long trip to Spain and France to eat and write.  A free opportunity to do that same in Israel didn’t seem so bad.  Plus, Jewish parents like it when you do things like apply for trips to Israel.

During my Birthright interview, which took place over the phone while I sat at an Arab café in Greenwich Village, I explained that my relationship with Judaism had changed over the years, partially due to my education at the Jewish Theological Seminary and also thanks to all the changes that happen in your twenties.  I explained that I no longer kept kosher, although I had been raised in a house with strictly separate dishes, and that food and Judaism had an important connection to me.  I also spoke about the menu at my Bat Mitzvah.  Clearly, no one was going to pick this hedonistic freeloader for a Birthright trip.  But Israel Experts did. 

On June 29, I headed to JFK International Airport to meet my best friends for the next two weeks. I hadn’t packed hiking shoes or a flashlight, because this was a culinary trip, not an adventure trip, and I had bought an international iPhone plan, so I could be as antisocial as possible. Again, I was a great candidate to take up a seat on the bus. 

After several unappetizing kosher meals on Austrian Airlines (and yes, I shamelessly begged the crew for the traif schnitzel, but no one obliged), we finally landed in Tel Aviv. About half of our group (none of whose names I knew at the time) had never been to Israel and was already overwhelmed with the foreign characters printed on the signs and all the ultra orthodox men hustling to daven mincha before passing through customs.  I rolled my eyes. Ten years of Hebrew school and a bachelor’s in modern Jewish studies overprepared me for this. Plus, I was hungry. Really hungry. 

We boarded a Coach bus that headed north to Shvil Izim, a goat farm where we would have orientation and our first meal in Israel. The whif of goat pens was soon overpowered by the scents of fresh salads, pasta, and a spread of cheeses, olives, and dips that quickly swallowed any qualms I had about taking two weeks off of work to go on this trip.  Many say that stepping of the plane in Israel makes them feel home, for me, it was that first bite of goat cheese. 

Our days soon filled with tours of holy and historic sites (I’d seen them several times before and may have ventured off to get international flavors of Manum bars not available in the states), meals at recommended Israeli restaurants, and plenty of frappe-style iced coffees that Birthright kids are all known for becoming “obsessed” with. 

The touring was enjoying, I brushed up on my Israeli history and geography, remembered a few Hebrew conjugations, and tried to appreciate the sites I’d seen before with new insight and perspective. Despite my original grumpiness, I knew I was extremely lucky to be on this trip. I’ve been fortunate to travel to many countries and continents, and getting to know these places via their cuisine, their daily meals and routines, helps me feel connected to the foreign destination as must more than a place on a map. 

It wasn’t my third visit to the kotel or another walk through the streets of Tsfat that renewed my love for Israel: it was the people. And perhaps more importantly, the food these people made.

We visited a Druze village for a cooking class, where we learned to make sambusak, tabbouleh salad, and stuffed grape leaves (which mysteriously disappeared before dinner, so maybe we didn’t really learn to make them correctly), and sat down to one of the best meals I’ve ever had adjacent to our instructor’s home.  Despite a few language barriers and perhaps an inability to correctly roll dolmas, the hospitality was incredible, and the desire to share the flavors and culture of the region was addicting.


Stuffed artichokes from The Culinary Queens of Yerucham

The Culinary Queens of Yerucham, a group of women whose children are out of the house, warmly welcomed us into their empty nests with plates of homemade, still sizzling schnitzel and couscous and stuffed artichokes. If their dining rooms weren’t in the middle of the desert but in Manhattan, there would be a month-long waiting list for a table, I joked.  But it was true: all the Israelis cooking for us were there, sharing their food, and we were somewhere else, living completely different lives.

I didn’t know what to do when I got back from Birthright. As we discussed in our closing session, talking about the experience with people who were not on the trip would be difficult: How could they ever understand? And what would we want them to understand? Birthright had done a decent job of educating us on the history and current events of Israel, our tour guide, David, open to questions about Palestinian rights and statehood and Israeli immigration issues, and I never once felt pressure to become more religious or even consider moving to Israel.  I took away a greater appreciation for the region, an understanding of individuals rather than just a group that we talk about in discussions about politics.

So I cooked.  I loaded up on purple cabbage and tomatoes and cucumbers and tahini and goat cheese and eggplant and ptitim (Israeli couscous) and chickpeas and olive oil and Halal ground lamb from a butcher in Queens and I cooked.  I cooked and I fed my friends and told them about my Israeli meals, and made them clean their plates like the good bubbe that I am. And I continue to cook with the recipes and inspiration I gathered in Israel.

Coucous from The Culinary Queens of Yerucham

Sentiments regarding the conflict in Israel are difficult to voice, almost impossible if you don’t want to offend one group or another. But the tastes are easy. We may not understand the conflict, may not know how to mediate Palestinian and Israeli peace, but the flavors and recipes humanize the struggle and hopefully make us stop and remember that a war going on thousands of miles away, in a foreign, distant, and delicious land, is so real, you can taste it.  

On a Birthright trip, love is born

Sagi Alkobi almost didn’t go on the Taglit-Birthright Israel trip.

It was August 2008, and the then-20-year-old student at The City University of New York had applied months in advance to participate in the educational tour of Israel for young Jewish adults. But a problem with his paperwork kept the application on hold, and, five days before the trip was about to begin, he assumed he wouldn’t be on it. Then he got a call.

“It was from Birthright,” recounted Alkobi, “They said, ‘We have an open spot for you. If you’d like, you can get on our Birthright trip. It’s on Monday.’ ” 

Perhaps it was destiny. Alkobi didn’t know it yet, but his life was about to change forever.

That change had a name: Daniella Elghanayan, a 21-year-old recent UC Santa Barbara graduate. They fell in love on the Birthright tour, and Sagi and Daniella, now 26 and 27 respectively, married last month at the Spanish Hills Country Club in Camarillo. 

It’s not the first time a Birthright experience has led to a wedding, said Pamela Fertel Weinstein, acting director of communications for Taglit-Birthright Israel. A recent request on the organization’s Facebook page for love stories from Birthright participants who met on the trip yielded more than 50 replies. 

Fertel Weinstein said studies of the program also show that Birthright participants are 46 percent more likely than non-participants to marry a Jewish spouse, and 25 percent of alumni are married to other Birthright alumni, although not necessarily from the same trip.

“People often look for similarities and common interests in their partners and Birthright Israel is becoming a more common experience,” she told the Journal in an email.

For Alkobi and Elghanayan, their love story began on the second night of their 10-day trip to the Holy Land. Their group of about 40 young people from the United States was camping with Israeli soldiers near the banks of the Jordan River. It was hot, people were snoring, and Alkobi and Elghanayan couldn’t sleep. As they sat with a small group of fellow sleepless campers, the two began to talk, and their conversation lasted all night.

“It just felt so natural and easy to talk to each other,” said Elghanayan, who is Persian. “There was definitely a spark.”

In the days that followed, Alkobi and Elghanayan grew closer. At first, Elghanayan felt a little shy, but slowly she let her guard down, and the pair became inseparable. 

“I would always look for her, I was always trying to see where she was. … It was like I was drawn to her,” Alkobi said. “I wasn’t really thinking straight, because I knew she lived in California, but I didn’t really care about that at all. I was like, whatever is going to happen, it’s going to happen. I just have to get to know her.”

When the time came to return home, it didn’t seem right that things should end there. 

“After we got back, it was like, wait, but, we’re not finished yet,” Elghanayan said. “I just couldn’t wait to talk to him again.”

Back home in the United States — but on opposite sides of the country — the couple stayed in touch with regular phone calls. Within a month, Alkobi had booked a flight to California, but he was still nervous. Getting to know Elghanayan amid the wonders of Israel had been magical; would that same spark still be there when he saw her again on her home turf?

He needn’t have worried.

After about 2 1/2 years of long-distance dating, Elghanayan moved to New York City to be closer to Alkobi, who had opened his own jewelry store, while also working for his family’s real estate and property management business. Then, around the fifth anniversary of their Birthright trip, the couple decided to take another trip together, back to Israel and also to Italy. 

They returned to their old haunts in the Jewish state, where their love had blossomed on Birthright, and visited Alkobi’s relatives. All the while, Alkobi carried a ring with him, waiting for the just the right moment. 

The young man’s original plan was to pop the question at the top of Masada, but with the August weather unbearably hot, he decided to wait until they reached Italy. After dinner on their first day in Rome, the couple headed to the famous Trevi Fountain. As they stood there admiring its majesty, a man came up and offered to take their picture. 

“Is this your wife?” he asked, causally.

“Not yet,” Alkobi said.

“I just kind of laughed and brushed it off. I didn’t think anything of it,” Elghanayan said. “Then as soon as he took the picture, [Alkobi] went down one knee. … I just stared at him with my mouth open.”

When Elghanayan finally said yes, it seemed the whole crowd of tourists surrounding them had been listening in. People began to clap. Somebody threw them a rose.

“It was really romantic,” Elghanayan said.

The couple were married Aug. 17 in a traditional Jewish wedding officiated by Rabbi David Zargari of Torat Hayim in Los Angeles. Prior to the big day, they held a celebration in Israel with Alkobi’s family, a Moroccan henna party, to honor his relatives’ cultural traditions.

The couple now lives in Santa Barbara, where she is a public relations consultant for several companies; one of her clients is Tel Aviv University. He works in real estate development and property management. They said they’re grateful to the Birthright trip for bringing them together.

“I really had no expectation at all. I was just going to see this country that obviously we had a connection to, and to see a new place that I’d never seen before,” Elghanayan said.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Alkobi agreed. “I just thought it would be a cool trip, and I happened to meet my future wife.”

Blaming Birthright for a Gaza death

Is Birthright Israel to blame for the death of Max Steinberg, one of two American Israeli soldiers killed in the war in Gaza?

That’s the assertion of Allison Benedikt, a senior editor at Slate, who first provoked Israel supporters in 2011 with an angry and rambling essay about how after her nefarious Zionist youth group (she doesn’t name it, but it’s Young Judaea) brainwashed her into liking Israel, she eventually learned better.

In Benedikt’s latest piece, she asserts that Steinberg’s decision to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces “seems like the ultimate fulfillment of Birthright’s mission” and asks in the story’s teaser “what makes an American kid with shaky Hebrew decide he is ready to die for Israel?” Not surprisingly, it has quickly sparked over 300 online comments. Meanwhile, the Times of Israel’s Haviv Rettig Gur has published a heated, point-by-point response.

Benedikt’s article isn’t the only Israel-Gaza conflict-fueled attack on Birthright. A darkly satirical Tumblr feed, “My Birthright Summer in Israel,” features perkily captioned photos of happy, partying Birthright participants superimposed over images of carnage and destruction in Gaza.

Global lacrosse community welcomes a formidable new member–Israel

Israel made a smashing debut at the 2014 World Lacrosse Championship in Denver this month, finishing seventh out of 38 teams, just three years after the first game was ever played in the country. 

Facing much more experienced teams, the Israelis came away with a 6-2 record, outscoring opponents by a cumulative score of 120-47. Both losses were by a single goal. (Canada upset the United States 8-5 to win the championship final.)

Lacrosse came to Israel only three years ago, following a young New Yorker’s 2010 Birthright experience. At the poignant moment of reflection, when the trip leader asked, “What are you going to do for the Israel you have just encountered?” Scott Neiss responded, “I’ll bring lacrosse to Israel.” 

Then a young executive who had worked for several professional lacrosse leagues in the United States, Neiss is now a Tel Aviv resident and Israeli citizen. He recruited coaches with world championship experience, established lacrosse training centers in Israel, combed the country for aliyah-niks who had played the sport in North America and raised more than $700,000 to help players compete at the highest levels.

A year after Neiss’ Birthright experience, I went to Jerusalem to referee the first lacrosse game played there. Larry Turkheimer, a Los Angeles businessman and one-time lacrosse All-American at the University of North Carolina, enlisted Jeff Alpert, then a UCLA student, and me as a l’dor v’dor referee duo. (I was 63, Alpert was 21.) Maybe “draft” is closer to Turkheimer’s approach than “enlist”: 

“Israel has just been admitted to the Federation of International Lacrosse, even though there’s never been a game played there. The first game is next month and they need a ref. You’re a teacher, you’ve got the summer off — use some frequent flier miles and do the game.” 

Fast-forward to this summer. Alpert and I got the same offer, only this time it was to officiate Israel’s pre-tournament games at the world championships. Whereas the 2011 game in Jerusalem had been ragged at its best moments, the 2014 Israel contingent in Denver comprised two teams — championship and development — with coaches, managers, trainers, photographers and an entourage of parents, siblings and other supporters. 

And there was definite promise. As it turns out, the number of accomplished Jewish lacrosse players is disproportionately high, and those veterans rallied to the Israel team. Head coach Bill Beroza was captain of the U.S. team that won the 1982 world championships, and defensive coach Mark Greenberg was his teammate. 

Players Ari Sussman and Casey Cittadino are veterans of Major League Lacrosse, the 14-year-old professional league started by Angeleno Jake Steinfeld. Ben Smith is assistant coach at Harvard, where he played as an undergraduate. Back-up goalie Reuven Dressler is a 41-year-old Tel Aviv physician who starred in an NCAA tournament while at Yale. 

Israel’s first pre-tournament game in Denver pitted the team against the Iroquois Nationals, ESPN’s darlings of the tournament because of their invention of the sport millennia ago and its renaissance due to record-setting accomplishments in the 2014 college season by brothers Lyle and Miles Thompson at the University of Albany. Although the two teams didn’t meet during the tournament — the Iroquois finished third and Israel was seventh — that first scrimmage showed Israel could compete against the teams in the tournament’s power pool.

That first scrimmage was our introduction to the 2014 team. Usually when the refs walk up to the playing field, we get pretty cold looks from the players on both sides. We think we’re there to make certain the game is safe, fair, fun and fast. Most players think we’re there to put them in the penalty box and generally mess up everything. For our work in Denver, Alpert and I wore striped shirts with an Israeli flag patch above the left pocket, instead of the Stars and Stripes patches we usually wear working in the U.S. The Israeli players saw our patches and actually smiled at us, many saying, “Hey, ref, cool.” 

In lacrosse, defenders need to communicate when their opponents create an advantage requiring a defensive response. In the argot of American lacrosse, the player who is ready with that response shouts, “I’m hot!” to his colleagues. The logic of the words is: If there is a breakdown, I’m the individual who will solve it. 

Israeli lacrosse players communicate differently, both in language and logic. On the playing field, they speak Hebrew to each other, even though most of the players learned the sport in the U.S. But instead of shouting, “I’m hot,” they say, “Ani rishon,” literally, “I’m first.” The logic of these words is: If there is a problem, I will be the first to go solve it, and I know others will be coming to support me. Perhaps this linguistic variation arises from the culture learned in Israel Defense Forces (IDF) service, where leaders say “Follow me as we go in!” not “Charge!” Whatever its origins, the Israeli defensive system worked.

The players concentrated on their sport responsibilities during the games, but the tumult at home was never far from their thoughts. Neiss set the tone with a message to his team and supporters on the eve of the tournament, saying in part: “We press forward, and continue onward with our mission to bring joy to the communities of Israel through sport during this difficult time. Our youth camp has continued this week despite threats in Tel Aviv. We’ve scholarshipped children from the south of Israel who have been relocated to the center, away from the border with Gaza. We will continue with our lacrosse camp in Ramla next week unless the [IDF] Home Front Command Unit instructs otherwise. It’s with this attitude that we press forward, and make our debut in the World Games. … We will not be deterred.”

Four candidates for the team did not travel to the U.S. because of their IDF commitments. Matthew Cherry, one of the team’s leading scorers, will begin his IDF training next month. In four years, with those commitments hopefully completed, Cherry and his mates hope to compete at the world championships in Manchester, England.

The challenges faced by the Israeli team in Denver were trivial by any comparison to current events in the Middle East. Once, while playing against the Netherlands at Colorado University in Boulder, Colo., a dozen or so geriatric Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions supporters showed up with anti-Israel signs and a bit of chanting. 

Getting no response from the athletes or the rest of the crowd, they left before halftime. 

Neil Kramer is dean of faculty emeritus at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills. He has played, coached and officiated lacrosse for more than 40 years

Slain Americans in Gaza among long line from U.S. to fight for Israel

Three days before he was killed fighting for Israel in Gaza, American Nissim Sean Carmeli sprained his ankle, and a doctor asked the Texan if he wanted to heal before going into action.

He refused, according to Maya Kadosh, Israel's deputy consul for the U.S. Southwest.

“He said no. He said he wanted to go into combat with his friends,” Kadosh told Reuters.

Carmeli, part of the elite Golani Brigade, and Golani sniper and fellow American Max Steinberg, 23, were among 13 Israeli Defense Forces soldiers killed on Sunday, the bloodiest day of the fighting in Gaza. About 100 Palestinians were killed.

Carmeli, 21, from South Padre Island, and Steinberg, from California's San Fernando Valley, were among the estimated 800 foreigners who enroll yearly in the 175,000-strong Israeli military, according to Joe Berkofsky, a spokesman for the non-profit Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces.

Kadosh said Carmeli was born on South Padre, the only son of a Zionist couple who had emigrated from Israel. He has two older sisters and grandparents in Israel.

Carmeli went to Israel at age 15 to attend high school and will have a military funeral there, Kadosh said. He held dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship.

“People say why would an American go to Israel to fight? I think it makes you more American fighting for what you believe,” she said.


Steinberg, a student at Pierce College in Los Angeles, visited Israel through the Birthright program, which pays for young Jews to visit from abroad, according to the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

He returned to join the IDF in December 2012. The trip to Israel helped Max realize where he belonged, his father, Stuart Steinberg, told the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.

“Although he was American, he truly connected (with Israel),” the newspaper quoted the father as saying. He said his son had not established permanent residence in Israel and was not an Israeli citizen.

Steinberg had been serving on the Syrian border, but the unit was sent to Gaza several days ago, the Journal said. He was killed when his armored personnel carrier was hit by a makeshift bomb or mine.

He had been scheduled to return to the United States in November after his military service. He also will be buried in Israel, the newspaper said.

Steinberg and Carmeli are among a long line of Americans who have served in the Israeli military, including the country's first general, David “Mickey” Marcus, a Brooklyn-born West Point graduate.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is not a crime to go abroad to enlist in a foreign army, but it may be illegal when someone is recruited in the United States.

An American can lose citizenship if he or she intends to give it up and serves voluntarily in armed forces fighting the United States, or serves in a foreign military as an officer or non-commissioned officer, according to the State Department.

Additional reporting by Ian Simpson, Steve Gorman and Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Peter Cooney

Life in a war zone: Birthright in a new light

Before my Birthright trip, when I pictured Israel, I saw myself riding camels, visiting the Western Wall, hiking Masada, floating on the Dead Sea. … I never imagined rockets exploding in the air, running barefoot to a bomb shelter or sirens wailing in the streets of Jerusalem. But on my trip I’m not just seeing the touristy view of Israel; I’m getting to see the constant struggle to survive that Israel must fight every day, all while people live their normal lives, for the most part without fear.

It’s July 12, day six of my Birthright trip, and in our hotel in Jerusalem today, we experienced our second siren. My roommate was in the shower, and I pounded on the bathroom door, shouting, “Hannah!” as loud as I could, wanting to run more than anything. She came out in her towel and, without a word, we held hands tightly and bolted down the hallway. 

Our guide, Daron, told us you’re not supposed to take the elevator, so we ran down the stairs flight after flight from the fourth floor with all the people in our hotel, mostly Orthodox Jews and other Birthright kids. Our guide also said that in Jerusalem, you have  1 minute and 15 seconds, maybe a minute and a half, after the siren sounds to make it to the shelter before the rockets would hit, and we realized we didn’t have time to make it all the way to the shelter, which is in the underground mall beneath our hotel. So we just stayed clumped together in the stairwell, Hannah clutching her towel, Orthodox women around us talking loudly in Hebrew, until we were allowed to leave after five or 10 minutes. 

On our run down, we heard two booms and felt sure rockets had just struck the city, but no one else seemed concerned. None of the Israeli soldiers on my trip seemed afraid — they walked casually down the stairs today while the rest of us pounded down them. They were more worried about their friends, some of whom are going to fight in Gaza and will be in direct danger soon. But I was scared. Later, our guide told us the booms we heard came from the Iron Dome deflecting the rockets, doing its usual miraculous job of preventing Israeli casualties even as Gaza pounded us with hundreds of rockets over the past few days. Every police siren we hear, every car alarm, every shout on the street makes us jump, wondering if it’s the siren and if we’ll be running for our lives again. 

But these moments of fear are few, and I’ve spent most of my time here enjoying the country. People here don’t let the rockets stop them from living their lives. We have visited the Western Wall, rafted on the Jordan River, walked through the quiet streets of Jerusalem on Shabbat and eaten our fill of falafel every day. Life goes on, and though the TV news reports all the fighting and the fear and the danger here now, I hope people back home in the U.S. know that Israelis are going to work, eating out, doing all the normal things we all do. They’re just doing it with the occasional and horrifying interruption of a siren warning them that a rocket might hit. 

The unity of the people here is like the U.S. after 9/11 — everyone is threatened, and everyone comes together, getting strength from one another and refusing to live in constant fear, no matter the circumstances. As frightening as it’s been at times, I’m glad I got to be here now, to see the resilience of the Israeli people and to feel like I finally understand what this tiny but powerful country is up against. It may not be the typical Birthright experience, but it’s a powerful one, and one I’ll never forget. I won’t miss running barefoot toward the bomb shelter, but it did help me appreciate how lucky we are in the U.S. to not know what that’s like, and how hard it is for us to fully understand a conflict that’s so distant unless, like me, you find yourself in the middle of it. 

What a time to be in Israel!

Cora Markowitz is an Angeleno about to become a sophomore at Kenyon College. She wrote this on her cell phone from Jerusalem.

Birthright to bring Israeli-American kids to their homeland

As the sun dipped below the horizon on the evening of May 6, nearly 100 local supporters of Birthright Israel gathered under a massive tent in the backyard of the Encino estate of philanthropists Adam and Gila Milstein.

Two hours later, Adam Milstein had announced a new Birthright program for Israeli-Americans and helped raise $6.5 million for Birthright — about $3.5 million for the new program — with the promise of much more. 

That’s thanks in large part to casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and media mogul Haim Saban, who, together, contributed about $3.5 million. Other large contributions were made by various attendees and board members of the Israeli American Council (IAC), a Los Angeles-based group that seeks to strengthen the Israeli-American community.

At the dinner, Adelson, 80, pledged to match up to $50 million in donations made this year to Birthright and spoke broadly about his historical connection to Israel and his commitment to ensuring that any Jew who wants to go there won’t face the same fate as his father, who was too ill to go by the time Adelson and his siblings could afford to send him.

“I don’t want one Jewish person not to be able to go to Israel because they are too old and too sick,” he said.

Speaking for more than 30 minutes and passionately explaining his fear that American Jewry is vanishing, Adelson — whose support from last year is helping the IAC expand nationwide — said that Birthright is the single best guarantor of keeping young Jews interested in being Jewish. Coming seven months after a Pew Research Center survey reported an alarming decline in involvement among young Jews, Adelson’s admonition sounded particularly urgent.

At one point, he even looked at Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, and predicted that, absent programs such as Birthright, Jewish communal organizations will be the first to disappear.

“Jay won’t need a job — there won’t be a Federation,” Adelson warned. “You better take that seriously. And then it will be AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee] and then it will be the ADL [Anti-Defamation League], the day schools, the Jewish camps. There won’t be any need because there won’t be any Jews left.”

Today, Adelson — whose net worth is just under $40 billion, according to Forbes — is heavily invested in Jewish life in America. He told the Journal after his speech that he has given more than $240 million to Birthright since the beginning of his involvement seven years ago, when his son’s inability to reach the top of Birthright’s waitlist alerted Adelson to the fact that, because of  lack of funds, thousands of young American Jews weren’t making it to Israel. He asked Birthright’s leadership how much it would cost to clear the waitlist. Their answer was $30 million. Adelson cleared it.

His reach has extended to Jewish life in Israel in recent years with his purchase of several news outlets, including the country’s largest newspaper, Israel Hayom, and a paper of the Zionist-religious right, Makor Rishon. The new Birthright program announced by Milstein is the IAC Leadership Taglit Birthright Trip. It will be jointly run by Birthright and the IAC with the goal of reversing what he said is a trend of assimilation in the Israeli-American community. “[This is] a community that’s not connected to Jewish organizations or Jewish life,” Milstein said. “If we were not there to work with this community, there is a real probability that they will assimilate quickly. They don’t go to synagogues. They don’t get a Jewish education.” 

Milstein estimates that about 1 million Israeli-Americans live in the United States. He said that Jews between 18 and 26 who have at least one Israeli parent and have spent most of their lives in America will be eligible. “When an Israeli-American comes on Birthright, the impact is probably five times more than the impact on Jewish-Americans,” Milstein said. “The reason is simple — Israeli-Americans are connected to Israel already.” 

In line with Birthright’s recently loosened eligibility requirements, Israeli-Americans who previously toured the land on an organized trip before the age of 18 will not be disqualified. Even so, Milstein predicts that many of the participants will not have intimate knowledge of the land. “They don’t know the land of Israel,” he said. “They know the house of their grandma; they know the beach in Netanya.” 

The new program, which will begin marketing this summer, hopes to send the first group of Israeli-Americans to Israel in the winter. A key component of the trip, Milstein said, will be regular follow-up with the participants after their return. He added that American Jews who prefer to go on a Birthright trip with Israeli-Americans will be able to apply to the program as well. 

My Birthright trip: From Mizzou to Masada

I was raised in a suburban, particularly Jewish area of the San Fernando Valley, where everyone knew everyone’s friend. We all studied Hebrew and proceeded with our b’nai mitzvahs, polished for our big day, not fully grasping the concept that this occasion was a rite of passage rather than a passage to every adult’s check book. I saw my bat mitzvah as an opportunity to get dressed up and recite a few Hebrew verses. Nothing more. I halted my Jewish education just weeks after the big event, putting myself into a state of secular identity. 

In the past, people have asked me if I was a Jew. I would say Jewish. Jew-ish? My answer always was heavy with insecurity, rather than pride. It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I started to feel as though an existential crisis was present. I realized that I was one of 700 Jewish students in a Midwestern school of 35,000 students, yet the only authentic connection I could link with Judaism was the matzah ball soup that my sorority chef prepared for the house on the second night of Chanukah. Oy vey. Just weeks after this religious epiphany, I registered for a winter Birthright trip and was accepted 20 days later. 

As not only a Jew, but also a photojournalist, I thought of this experience as an opportunity to warm up to a life of National Geographic escapades and adventures, while at the same time cruising around the Holy Land for 10 days, noshing on falafel and shawarma. I had no idea that this trip would be the best gift I could ever receive. 

For 10 days, I opened my eyes to 2,000-plus years of history, culture and traditions. 

Israel remains an enigma to me. Yet, the level of comfort and security I felt there will never be matched anywhere else. It is an indescribable feeling to set foot on foreign land and feel at ease with myself and with 40 Jewish strangers. For me, the Holy Land has become the Happy Land. I caught myself smiling at the endless wonders this country holds. 

Where I was once religiously jaded and lacked appreciation for my biblical past, I have now realized that ignorance is not bliss. I now believe that not wanting to understand Judaism is simply a missed opportunity. The journey I experienced just a few months ago proved to my 13-year-old self that religion is not something you should brush past in conversation, but rather a story waiting to be told, for every resident of and visitor to Israel. These photos tell my story.

A visit to Yad Vashem, Israeli’s Holocaust memorial museum, culminates with a spectacular view of the thriving Ein Kerem Valley in Jersualem. 

A herd of sheep eat their food at Naot Farm, an innovative Israeli desert farm known for producing homemade cheese and milk from 150 goats. The farm was created in 2003 by the Nachimov family and continues to be an active farm, along with providing living accommodations for visitors.

A Bedouin man pours tea for visitors before their night hike into the desert on Jan. 8. Many Bedouin tribes offer visitors the opportunity to spend a night in tents, ride camels and learn about  Bedouin life during their visit to Israel.

Children embrace in the Old City of Jerusalem on Jan. 17. 

Ein Avdat is a canyon located in the Negev. There are many springs in the southernmost part of the canyon with a collection of waterfalls. It was once inhabited by Catholic monks and Nabateans, an ancient Semitic people.

Morgan J. Lieberman is a photojournalism student at the University of Missouri.

Birthright initiative keeps seders on next gen’s tables

This ” target=”_blank”>NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation.

Adam Pollack, senior director of NEXT’s Western region, said the Passover project encourages young people to develop their own experiences and personal version of the holiday. In Los Angeles, a number of hosts in their 20s and 30s are participating this year.

“They’re reinventing Passover rituals,” he said. “We provide educational materials so that they can understand what is possible. Some pick and choose what they like. Some discuss social justice, and others talk with their friends about the traditions. In the most clear sense, it’s do-it-yourself.”

Birthright alumni who sign up to host seders — registration ends April 14 — receive $10 per guest for food and supplies. It’s required for hosts to hold their seders on the first two nights and to give feedback afterward, according to Pollack. 

Since 2011, when the project began, more than 1,000 people have hosted NEXT Passover seders. Thirty-year-old Danielle Kreinik-Siegel, who lives in Carthay Circle, held her first seder in 2012, five years after returning from Birthright. 

“I think, especially for people my age and younger, that it’s important to learn how to have a seder,” she said. “We have seders every single year as a family, and I had no idea how I was going to do it myself. I couldn’t afford to do a seder with friends, and many people wouldn’t be able to celebrate if it wasn’t for a program like Birthright.”

Falyn Sokol, 26, who lives in the Pico-Robertson area, held her first seder in 2011 with 14 friends. This year, she plans to welcome a dozen guests into her home to commemorate Passover. 

“The seders offer an opportunity to celebrate the culture and the community aspect of it and bring my friends together,” she said.

After her experience hosting a few seders through NEXT, 28-year-old Becka Ross was able to lead the dinner at her family’s house. 

“My parents were so impressed that I was able to plan and cook an entire seder meal, and [by] the additions I had made to our family haggadah,” she wrote the Journal in an e-mail. “All of that I had gained from my experiences of hosting Birthright NEXT seders.”

Pollack said that hosts put their own twists on the holiday. Kreinik-Siegel created her own haggadah and included information about social issues and pictures from the show “Arrested Development.” 

She said, “It makes people want to be part of it. I’ve gone to really long and boring seders, and I wanted to make it fun.”

Along with the Passover project, NEXT holds Shabbat and High Holy Days initiatives that also are aimed at getting young Jews more involved with Judaism. There are thousands of Birthright alumni in the United States who have connected with their peers through these offerings, which are intended to provide them with a space to celebrate their religion and heritage. 

Sokol said the Jewish people are strengthened by this particular NEXT initiative.

“It’s important to keep the culture of Judaism alive and to connect with other Jewish people,” she said. “There is something about the culture and the community that, no matter where you are, when you find it, you’re home.”