Jewish philanthropists: I offer a New Year’s Resolution that can potentially
change the face of American Jewry for decades. Create a Birthright to a Jewish
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on
Taglit-Birthright, the program that sends Jewish young adults on a 10-day
educational trip to Israel to deepen their commitment to their Jewish identity.
But 14 years after the program was launched, not much has changed.
time for the folks who are funding Birthright to realize that their hearts are
in the right place, but their pocketbooks aren’t.
Birthright began in
December 2009, when Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt pledged $210 million
towards the initiative. Since then, over 330,000 participants have joined the
program. And while the results have certainly been positive, the reality is that
their commitment to Judaism doesn’t seem to last very long.
a study called, “A Mega-Experiment in Jewish Education – The Impact of
Taglit-Birthright,” participants certainly seem to feel more connected with
Israel and Judaism. “More than a year after they return home,” it finds, “their
attitudes and engagement in the Jewish community were different.”
the study continues, “a clear involvement in Jewish ritual and activities did
not increase dramatically.”
This leads the researchers to conclude that
“the success of the program poses a challenge for the Jewish
The community now needs to find ways to transform
participants’ inspiration and motivation into Jewish commitment.”
opinion, Birthright was a good start, but as the study sadly shows, it is
equivalent to putting a bandage on a patient who really needs major
According to the recent Pew Research Center study, assimilation
is rampant. The Jewish community is bleeding way too heavily for Birthright to
make a major lasting impact. It is time for visionaries in the mold of Charles
Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt to step up to the plate and really invest in
saving the Jewish nation.
After much thought and discussion with Jewish
activists around the country, I am proposing a new program, “Birthright to a
An authentic Jewish education is oxygen for the Jewish
soul. All Jewish children deserve to know and understand their heritage. That
education will inspire them to learn, to grow, to build, to dream and as history
has illustrated, all of society, not just the Jewish community, will
The opportunity to send a child to a Jewish school from
kindergarten through 12th grade should be available to every Jewish family that
understands the tremendous risk of ignoring such opportunities, and the
immeasurable rewards of seizing the moment. Developing a strong sense of Jewish
identity is the key to sustaining the Jewish faith in ever more secular
This education must be financed by an entity called Birthright
to a Jewish Education, which will be a designated central fund. This endowment
fund should be managed with the highest ethical standard, with oversight by a
board of America’s most respected and trusted philanthropists. It should be
parent-driven, via a voucher system they will receive directly and control
entirely, in terms of the Jewish school to which it is
Preference should be given primarily to those who are in the
greatest danger of denying themselves the right to a Jewish education, as well
as those who are lowest on the socioeconomic ladder.
This concept should
and could work, as long as it remains both apolitical and non-denominational as
a policy of criteria for eligibility. Jewish parents across the spectrum should
have a choice as to the type of education they prefer for their
Realistically, this effort will only be universally accepted if
the parent dictates which school the child will attend – hence, all Jewish
schools will be eligible for funding.
That said, today it is the Orthodox
model that is at the forefront of stemming Jewish assimilation, as confirmed by
the Pew study.
We are losing thousands of children every year. Every
child should have the opportunity to an authentic Jewish education, one that
their parents might have been denied. The stakes are simply too high to ignore
For the first time, we are also witnessing parents send their
child to a public school as opposed to a day school due to financial constraints
– and this is simply unacceptable.
For those like myself who spend
considerable time outside the protective bubble of Boro Park and Williamsburg,
it is painful to watch as the secular community rapidly diminishes. Secular Jews
who received even a quasi-Jewish education have kept some sort of faith-based
Those that were deprived of a basic Jewish education may be
Taglit-Birthright was a noble idea, but the notion that a
10-day trip will provide the antidote to the spiritual Holocaust taking shape
across America is naïve, and insulting to all of us who care deeply about Jewish
Wherever there are emerging or established Jewish
communities, one will find thriving yeshivot and day schools. Visit the
communities of Passaic, New Jersey or Phoenix, Arizona, and you will witness
scores of school buses filled with children en route to Jewish schools every
morning. In these areas, Jewish identity and Jewish investment is
There is no reason why others cannot duplicate this success.
It is a matter of commitment, and yes, funding.
Instead, I suggest that
the Jewish community take the limited successes of Taglit-Birthright and really
invest in a plan to save the next generation of American secular Jews. I believe
there is enough funding available within the community to subsidize a program on
the scale I am proposing.
For those who feel that I’m dreaming, I assure
you that the money is there. According to Forbes Israel, there are currently a
total of 165 Jewish billionaires around the world with a combined wealth of $812
billion. Many of them do support a variety of Jewish programs and activities,
but not Jewish education. Imagine if just some of them earmarked funds for this
I am not remotely pretending to address all the issues,
logistics and otherwise.
My sole intention is to start a conversation and
encourage caring and committed Jews from all backgrounds to face the harsh
realities facing us as a people, now before it is too late. Let’s change the
face of American Jewry by ensuring that all of our children are educated and
inspired to be proud of their Jewish identity.
I’m willing to discuss my
plan and my ideas with those who are willing to rise to the challenge.
worthy New Year’s resolution to consider, indeed.The writer is the CEO
of The Friedlander Group, a public policy consulting group based in New York
City and Washington.
Follow him on Twitter: @ezrafriedlander