I had anticipated speaking with Michael Steinhardt primarily about "birthright israel," the 10-days-in-Israel program for 18-26-year-olds he co-founded and has so heavily underwritten, and which, astoundingly, is about to welcome its 100,000th participant.
And birthright was indeed what we started off discussing. It has been, Steinhardt happily and rightly reported, a staggering success, a transformative experience for those who come here, to the point where one of its biggest problems right now is that the program simply cannot keep pace with the worldwide demand to join it.
Steinhardt estimates that perhaps 50,000 more youngsters are waiting to come on birthright trips than can be accommodated in the near future. One solution, of course, might be to adjust the innovation at its financial heart - that participants need pay absolutely nothing, with all costs underwritten by a partnership of the Israeli government, Jewish federations and private philanthropy. But Steinhardt wouldn't dream of it. Instead the principals have set up a birthright foundation, to raise additional revenues, toward a goal of doubling, at least, the 21,000 places available to participants this year.
If birthright can get its annual numbers above 40,000, he reckons, this would enable about half of the Jewish youngsters worldwide in its age group to take advantage of the program - an extraordinary ambition.
Birthright emerged from the recognition that Jewish identity is relentlessly weakening among Diaspora youngsters, that an Israel experience is the most potent means of bolstering the Jewish soul, and that if wealthy, capable and innovative individuals - principally Steinhardt and co-founder Charles Bronfman - didn't initiate what amounts to an emergency Diaspora rescue program, nobody else was going to.
Steinhardt - who closed the Wall Street hedge-fund that had made him a reported $300 million fortune a decade ago to devote his time and money primarily to Jewish causes, and has funded Jewish life-enriching projects from Manhattan's Makor singles venture to the Israel Museum - readily acknowledges that 10 days in Israel is not, in itself, the panacea for Diaspora indifference and assimilation. The organizers are constantly striving to improve follow-up programming once participants get back home. And Steinhardt himself, now in his mid-60s, is deeply engaged in a variety of other "resonant and exciting" educational programs - for pre-school, day school and beyond - designed to inculcate Jewish values into youngsters, and their parents, who might otherwise be lost.
By the end of the year, he promises chiefly, he and his philanthropist partners will finally establish a much-anticipated $100 million "Fund for our Jewish Future" - an initiative designed no less than to "transform American Jewish education" and "hopefully begin to create the necessary tools to maintain the Jewish people in the Diaspora in perpetuity. Now, if that sounds optimistic," he smiles, "it probably is."
Choosing his words painstakingly, in the softest of tones and with the lengthiest of pauses between some of them, Steinhardt ascribes the "crisis" in North American Jewry, in part, to the very tolerance and shared priorities of the wider, non-Jewish environment. It is the crisis of a community "living as a minority among people whose values have begun to merge with their own," he says, "and who have welcomed them in so many ways as to make difficult their ability to justify separation. But it also reflects the inability of the Jewish people to communicate their own history and their own values in a resonant enough way from generation to generation, so that even in this extraordinarily warm, seductive, inviting environment, they understand why it is really important to be Jewish and why we should take great pride in being Jewish."
One potential solution for Diaspora decline, I posit, is surely an observant approach to Judaism - if not via the non-Orthodox streams, then via the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, where intermarriage rates are far lower.
Steinhardt agrees, to some extent: "There is superficially some evidence on their side and it's something to be recognized. But the wisest of the Orthodox know the great problems they are facing," he asserts, "that they too are subject to the same sorts of influences as the rest of us are subject to - that they can't keep isolated and insulated forever. They're losing peopleâ€¦ But they are maybe one step further away and that one step makes a differenceâ€¦The ball is truly in the camp of the non-Orthodox, to show that we have the resonance to come back and to figure out how to live as Jews in a free, open society. And the verdict isn't in yet as to if we can. So if I were an Orthodox Jew... I would say 'prove me wrong.'"
STEINHARDT'S REFUSAL to view Orthodoxy as a remedy for the disappearing Diaspora begs another question. "What then," I ask him across the coffee table of his Tel Aviv hotel room, "are the Jewish values and traits that you are seeking to preserve and maintain in this non-observant Jewish people that you want to educate?"
And that's when our conversation departs in a direction I had not foreseen, and becomes unusually soul-baring.
"I have very strong answers to that," he says. "I particularly, being an atheist, have thought a lot about what it is about being Jewish that's worthy of maintaining. Because I think as we extend ourselves in the 21st century, more and more Jews are having a great deal of difficulty in dealing with the idea of a relevant supernatural. I think we have to begin to deeply analyze what it means to be Jewish.
"Historically," he goes on, "it was always comfortable to say 'those who are Jewish believe in the Torah and what's written there,' and it's so God-centric that it answered most of the questions. Today, for most of us, it doesn't answer most of the questions anymore, whether we call ourselves theists or atheists or whatever. It seems to me one has to begin to seriously start asking questions that one didn't have to ask before."
And which questions has Steinhardt been asking about a Judaism not centered on the divine? "How I come down on this is that all we have as Jews that separates us is our values," he declares quietly. "We are not different because of our genetics. We are not different, even though I would like to think otherwise sometimes, because of social Darwinism. In other words, it's not that the contemporary generation of Jews is smarter, or that the smartest Jews survived very difficult periods and we are the product of those smart people. It's not DNAâ€¦ None of those things. Your baby and my baby and a black baby from Africa and an Eskimo baby and everybody else are truly born equally with the same genetic potential.
"So what do we have to explain the fact that we are so much more achieving than any other group relative to our number?" he goes on. "You know, all the stories about Nobel Prize winnersâ€¦ about representing almost a quarter of the Forbes 400 in the United States though we're less than 2% of the population, with dominance in the media and music and God [!] knows what else?
His answer: "It comes from one thing - the history and continuity of Jewish values, the overwhelming first of which is our overwhelming focus, in terms of time and energy and money, on learning, on education, on memory. That has continued for 3,000 or 4,000 years and has made us the people we are. It is not the only Jewish value but it is the predominant Jewish value, along with tzedaka and some other things... I think if we introspect hard we may find a few others that are Jewish values and that's what makes us Jews as far as I'm concerned. And they don't require a belief in the supernatural."
Does he, I wonder, not even maintain the last-resort nicety of invoking superior forces to explain the otherwise inexplicable - the origins of the universe, say, or the essence of personality? For a start, I press, how does he fathom the simple fact of our being here?
"I'm not of the view that anything is beyond our understanding," he says. "At various points in time, certain things are not easily explainable. I don't understand our beginning but I'm comfortable in accepting the idea of some sort of evolutionary history that goes back and back and back and back, and if you're going to ask me, well how did it all begin, I don't know," he spreads his hands, "but I'm comfortableâ€¦"
"Well, lots of people would call that God," I interrupt.
"Calling forces you don't understand God is perfectly reasonable," he grants me gently, "but is it a God that has relevance in your life? Is it a God that's all good, all knowing, all powerful, a God that helps you explain the Holocaust? A God that when you read about the crossing of the Red Sea at Passover gives you comfort that that really happened? â€¦ Is it helpful to you to believe that? I've always had difficulty. There was a certain point in time when I started to wonder.
"I used to believe those biblical stories," he recalls. (The son of a jeweler and a bookkeeper who divorced when he was a baby, Steinhardt grew up in a Brooklyn home he has elsewhere described as "marginally Orthodox," attending Hebrew school five days a week before rebelling in his teens.) He turns the tables on me. "Did you go through a period of your life when you believed them?"
"I come from an Orthodox home," I tell him.
"Me too," he says, and, still playing inquisitor, he prods me: "Okay, and then what happened?"
"The notion of a benevolent all-seeing power became something I did not subscribe to," I say warily, staying deteminedly less candid than my interviewee. "Atheism seems so arrogant. I don't understand how my children came to be, and I'm happy to say that there are things beyond my ken and leave it at that."
"I think I understand how you can say arrogant when one uses the term atheist," he responds. But no, Steinhardt is at pains to explain, his atheism isn't arrogance. Indeed, he has spoken in the past about it almost as an affliction, of having had "a longing" for faith that he has been unable to fulfill. "I feel so upset about accepting the existence of a God," he says now, with feeling, "because I always associate God with something good. And God has been anything but goodâ€¦ If you want to talk about a God as being a force of good and evil, punishment and reward, forget it. Go define God in terms of what you know about justice on this earth, and you really have problems.
"Therefore, I would rather be an atheist and say 'He doesn't exist and to hell with him.' If he does exist, he's done such a shitty job anywayâ€¦ He doesn't reward the good and punish the evil. If anything he seems to do just the opposite. So I'd rather not think about it in that way, because it upsets me. So I'd rather say I'm just an atheist."
I'm not sure I follow all of that, even here, in black and white. But Steinhardt is in full flow by now, the earlier pauses forgotten.
Leaving God out of it, he is saying, "hasn't our history been as good as it gets? â€¦ We've done so much good, compared to any other people. We should be so proud of ourselves. And if we can somehow rearrange our Jewish understanding and our Jewish knowledge to look at ourselves that way, to look at Albert Einstein as a hero, to look at so many other Jews in our history as heroes, then I think we can begin to love our being Jewish more than we do today. Not to think about Joseph as our hero, or Moses as our hero, but real people who have done what they've done. To think about David Ben-Gurion as a hero or other secular Jews. It takes on a whole new light. They are flesh and blood."
But aren't the values these Jewish "heroes" embody - the humility and integrity and respect for one's fellow man - the very values the God-centered Jewish religion has stressed, I ask him. Aren't the rituals and practices primarily the means of protection? Would the values he so prizes survive without the core of ritual and practice?
"Great question," he congratulates me. "My answer to that: I am in the midst of trying to create - this sounds arrogant, so you'll forgive me before I start - I am trying to create a 21st century Judaism, Common Judaism, and Common Judaism is Judaism for all of us. It combines the best of our past with the recognition that we have to somehow be relevant and we have to recognize change. So for instance it would seem to me more than reasonable that every year we would memorialize the Holocaust. You do it here, but we don't do it in the United States or anywhere else. Every year you memorialize the birth of the state. You do it here, but we don't do it anywhere else. Do we need to memorialize the destruction of the second Temple? Is it really relevant anymore? It seems to me that memorializing the Holocaust is profoundly more relevant. So that would be a change I would make as part of a new common Judaism.
"There are a lot of other changes I would make as part of the new Common Judaism," he goes on, sounding, worryingly, a touch messianic now and, to his credit, realizing it: "As an example of what I'm trying to do - and again, I keep emphasizing if it sounds arrogant, it is arrogant because I don't have the background to justify doing it myself and I'm not sure that the people around me are good enough or smart enough to do it - but as an example, I've gotten together 30 or so people who are rabbis and people from birthright and from [the] Pardes [educational institute here] and from [Manhattan's] B'nai Jeshurun [congregation] and from Hillel [the Jewish college campus organization]. And the objective of this is to create a Common Judaism.
"Hillel right now is [active] on 110 or 120 campuses and on Friday night they attract on average maybe 5% of the Jewish population on campus. What I am trying to create is a true, resonant Shabbat service for Friday night. I will define myself as successful if I can take that average percentage on the campuses and triple, quadruple, or quintuple the number of kids who come regularly to a Friday night Shabbat service. That seems to be a justifiable Jewish sort of thing to do."
It depends, I venture, on what they are assembling for.
"To celebrate Shabbat," he says instantly, "to celebrate Shabbat as a community, to separate Shabbat from the rest of the week, to sing the songs and to dance and to be joyous and to share a meal, as has been our tradition on Shabbat forever. And to do it in a way that will work for Jews in the twenty-first century."
COMMON JUDAISM? A Judaism made relevant for the 21st century? With all due respect for the noble Jewish goal of recovering the lost demographic, do you not, I ask him, risk becoming the latest incarnation of those who would tear Judaism away from its roots? "Aren't you like the early Reform Jews of Germany, who said, 'Traditional Judaism is irrelevant now, we have to move with the times and find a brand of this nationhood or value system that is relevant for today's people because these Orthodox people are just going to die out'?"
"I see what you're saying," Steinhardt allows. "But what I'm saying is I'm taking people who are divorced from their Judaism, who do not in general participate very much, and trying to develop the way to meaningfully increase and enhance their participation by creating a Jewishness that is perfectly consistent with the past and offering it to them in such a way that they, because it is the 21st century, will find appealingâ€¦ Just to give you as flavor: Have you ever been to a birthright mega-event? I guess it would be a combination of the singing that goes on there, which mostly uses songs from the scriptures, and it would be something like the B'nai Jeshurun Friday night Shabbat service. Singing and dancing and joy. And whatever else those 20 or 30 people I get together, who presumably are the best that exist in the Jewish world today, will figure out. The measure of success being that we take people who don't at present participate and we get them to participate."
This new "Common Judaism," he promises, will be "nothing new age, nothing cutesy. Nothing outside of the traditional framework has been done here," he asserts, "except maybe in a different configuration of what's going to be said, when it's going to be said, whether it will be highly orchestrated, whether it will be the same everywhere, whether it'll be 72 minutes or 59 minutes or whatever it works out to beâ€¦
"You're dealing with people whose time frame is different than it was in the past," he stresses. "We're going to make it shorter and better and more resonant and more exciting and something they're going to like... It will be fun and pleasurable and spiritual and I don't," he rounds off with a mite of defiance, "see one ounce of negative in doing that.
"In answer to your earlier point, 'is it hostile to Orthodoxy?'" he continues: "Only in the sense that I'm not going to have a mehitza. I'm not going to do the sorts of things that are required among the Orthodox. I'm just not," he repeats, more defiantly now. "It's not going to work for these people. I am very much admiring of Chabad. But when I'm with the Chabad rabbis I say, 'Why do you think you're going to win with these young girls when you won't shake their hands? Why do you think you're going to win with these young girls when you have to wear a dark suit and white shirt and tie?' They do win and they're very effective but they're very constrained at the same time.
"So here, that's my best effort and it will probably fail," he says, with a half sigh quite at odds with his previous certainties. "It's my best effort to bring back those people who are probably lost to Judaism."
Probably fail? We'll see. This is the financial brain, remember, who made hundreds of millions by bucking trends and defying conventional wisdom. This is the iconoclast, don't forget, who planted birthright in the heart of a barren, even hostile, Jewish establishment landscape. This is his blueprint for wooing the complacent, assimilating multitudes - provocative, determined, unconventional, just like Steinhardt himself. And this is his Judaism - an insistently, if sorrowfully, God-free Judaism that will challenge, I suspect, the many who lazily consign the things they don't understand to a force they conveniently call God.