Machlokes / Controversy

Jewish World Review Dec. 10, 1998 / 21 Kislev, 5758

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Bringing Wall Street Wisdom To the Quest for 'Jewish-Continuity'

AN AMBITIOUS PROGRAM to send any willing Jew in the world between the ages of 15 and 26 to Israel for ten days was recently put before the public eye. The "Birthright Israel" plan, intended to help fuel Jewish identity and continuity, is impressive, to be sure. And expensive; it is expected to cost $300 million over five years, a sum that will be initially financed by the Israeli government, a group of North American Jewish philanthropists and the Council of Jewish Federations.

Only a truly hardened cynic could dismiss so well-intentioned an effort out of hand, yet the gnawing sound you hear is the suspicion that free tours of Israel may prove less effective than expected, or even, G-d forbid, counterproductive.

Many are the tales, to be sure, of confused or uncommitted Jews who came to discover their roots and their lives' direction in the Holy Land, whose very atmosphere, the Talmud teaches us after all, is a catalyst to wisdom. But there is also much in Israel, especially these days, that could conceivably have a less than salubrious effect on unguided Jewish souls.

The plan, after all, will be offering, according to The New York Times, "kibbutz trips, archeological trips, hiking treks, ecological journeys and historical trips" -- fare that could just as easily disillusion young visitors as inspire them. The kibbutz movement has hardly been a successful engine of Jewish (or even kibbutz) continuity; hiking trails in Israel may not always compete favorably with the Appalachian Trail -- and what is an "ecological trip" anyway? Historical tours might indeed raise some consciousnesses, but that would largely depend on what elements of Jewish history would be presented, and from what perspective.

Michael Steinhardt Michael H. Steinhardt, the successful Wall Street money manager who, along with Seagram Company chairman Charles R. Bronfman, is initiating the program, feels that association with Israel is the ultimate goal. "Israel has frankly... for much of my life," he told The Times, "been a substitute for [Jewish] theology."

Leaving entirely aside the question of why anyone would deem the Jewish religious heritage in need of a substitute, there can be little doubt that, for better or worse, the Jewish State is clearly less inspiring today to many Jews than it was during the heady days of the 1960s.

Those, for instance, who found it relatively easy to discern forces of good and of evil when a host of Arab nations ruthlessly threatened Israel more than three decades ago are less likely to perceive the persistence of that threat today. Things like Yassir Arafat's astonishing ability to preach coexistence and peace to some audiences (even as he preaches entirely diametric ideals to others) and the press's incessant portrayal of Israel as intransigent, and worse, make it even harder to see things as they once were so clearly perceived by so many, like the younger Mr. Steinhardt.

Even many of those who may once have reveled in the romantic "my might and the strength of my hand" notion of temporal Jewish assertion of power and right to the Jewish land have become disillusioned of late with the rude intrusion of geopolitical realities on the Zionist dream. Israel's leaders, once effectively worshipped in this camp, are often perceived as the Jewish enemy. These days, to recast a famous expression, it is hard to be a secular Zionist.

An unintentionally depressing comparison, as it happens, was employed by Mr. Steinhardt himself, in an interview with a reporter for The Forward. He expressed his hope, the weekly reported, that the program will achieve success and establish a tradition even "perhaps analogous to [the] bar mitzvah."

The comparison bears reflection. In popular American culture, the bar mitzvah celebration has sadly but undeniably come to be associated not with the commencement of commitment but with its smothering. What once heralded (and for some still heralds) a life of intense Jewish identity has devolved, in so much of the Jewish community, into a celebration of teen-agerhood, a vehicle for parental excess, a showcase for disk-jockeys and movie themes. It would be superfluous (not to mention depressing) to detail here the "state of the contemporary American bar mitzvah," but the picture, most of us know, is not a pretty one.

Thus, ironically, should the "Birthright Israel" plan live up to the hope for it Mr. Steinhardt expressed (though did not likely intend), it will not only fail to solidify Jewish continuity but become just another means for Jews to embrace materialism and what passes for popular culture in modern times.

"Birthright Israel" is a good, if imperfect, idea, and its originators deserve credit for putting forth any plan -- not to mention the considerable funds they have pledged -- to intensify Jewish identity and commitment. Were the program amended, though, to maximize the Jewish impact of the gift it offers Diaspora Jews -- were it, say to provide them ten days (or even two of the ten) in an Israeli yeshiva catering to those from overseas or in an adult beginner's program sponsored by an outreach institute -- it might well be a truly giant step in the right direction. Surely no objective observer would deny that Torah-study is an integral part of the contemporary Israeli scene.

Might there even, though, be shorter and surer roads, even in the Diaspora, to the goal of connecting Jews to other Jews and to Judaism? Like, for instance, the road Jews traveled for the nearly 2000 years during which visiting or settling in Eretz Yisroel was hardly an option. The very same road, as it happens, that still remains the most effective means of ensuring Jewish identity, praxis and life: a true, traditional Jewish education for every precious Jewish child.

Every study of Jewish continuity, after all, has identified Jewish education as the most potent predictor of future Jewish identity and Jewish living; the more years of Jewish education -- and the more traditional the curriculum -- the stronger the resultant bond with the Jewish people and faith.

So many Jewish day schools and yeshivos are suffering economically, and so many Jewish parents are unable to afford them. For lack of nothing more than dollars, priceless Jewish souls -- from a wide assortment of Jewish backgrounds -- are being denied the opportunity to learn to read Hebrew, to study Torah, to hear what Shabbes is like.

There can be little doubt that scholarships to help present Jewish children with their spiritual heritage could deeply, relatively quickly and radically change the demographic landscape of the Jewish world.

Does it not seem self-evident that, if the will is there to empower Jewish continuity, the way -- or, at very least, a major way -- is the Jewish school?

Some, of course, might wax cynical at the thought of concentrating communal Jewish efforts on institutions that, all said and done, are overwhelmingly Orthodox. Coming from Orthodox quarters, to be sure, the notion would certainly seem self-serving at best.

But all truly open-minded Jews, whatever their denominational affiliations, realize that a traditional Jewish education -- one that regards Judaism as it has been regarded for three millennia -- is, simply stated, the most potent ensurer of Jewish continuity. If Jewish knowledge and observance are good, it must be admitted that more of each is surely better.

And the undeniable, happy reality is that, for decades, day schools have been resolutely, sensitively and successfully servicing children from a variety of Jewish backgrounds.

Some of those children may have since come to identify themselves as Orthodox, others not. But all were equipped with the opportunity and knowledge to make Jewish choices -- and all graduated more likely to remain conscious and dedicated parts of the Jewish people (not to mention more likely to visit or live in Israel).

Still, it is probably audacious for members of the Orthodox community to suggest to people like Mr. Steinhardt and Mr. Bronfman how best to maximize investments of funds; they are, after all, proven successes in the worlds of high finance and business.

Their very success in their fields, though, might well afford us hope that, when re-evaluating their plan, the dedicated philanthropists will be keenly aware of the fact that here, as in every important endeavor, the wisest investments are those placed in proven stocks.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel of America,
the largest grass-roots Orthodox Jewish group in America.


7/06/98: Jaded
7/01/98: Full disclosure

©1998, Rabbi Avi Shafran