Bronfman: Reform Jews must take back Birthright

"We’re going to meet that challenge and more," URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs says.

Diaspora youngsters enjoy a Birthright Israel trip to the Jewish state. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Diaspora youngsters enjoy a Birthright Israel trip to the Jewish state.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A representative of Chabad expressed gratitude to American Jewish philanthropist and Birthright Israel co-founder Charles Bronfman on Thursday, only one day after Bronfman called on the Reform movement to displace the hassidic movement as the largest provider of Israel trips.
“Who is the largest trip provider? Chabad. And who performs the most conversions? Chabad. And who provides the largest number of post-trip programs? Chabad.
It seems to me it should be you, not Chabad,” Bronfman told attendees of the biennial conference of the Union for Reform Judaism on Wednesday.
Bronfman noted that 75 percent of participants on Birthright – a free, 10-day trip to Israel for Jews aged 18-25 – identify as Reform, nondenominational or just Jewish.
According to Birthright, the Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies, which runs Chabad’s Birthright initiative, brought around 100 groups to Israel last year out of 1200. Mayanot works together with Chabad’s university campus arm, which operates 230 centers across the US.
“Mr. Bronfman is a friend and we are very heartened by his comments,” Rabbi Shlomo Gestetner, director of Mayanot, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
“He is holding Mayanot birthright up as a model of success and is challenging other organizations to strive for the same level of accomplishment.”
Calling Bronfman’s remarks a “pretty audacious challenge,” URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs replied that “these are our young people... we’re going to meet that challenge and more. We’re never going to stop growing our numbers and increasing the impact of these transformational trips.”
Bronfman’s remarks came as Chabad was holding its own gathering in Brooklyn, bringing together around 5,200 representatives of the movement from around the world.
“I think he’s saying that the Reform movement, from whom most Taglit [Birthright] participants come, is not responding to the felt needs of its youth to encounter Judaism and Zionism. And Chabad, a non-Zionist organization that shares very few of Reform Jewish values and views, is filling the vacuum by offering its own ideology and form of Judaism. And he thinks this represents a failure of Reform, at least as much as a success of Chabad,” said Queens College sociologist professor Samuel Heilman.
“By the way, I’m not certain that the success that he attributes to Chabad is actually there. Most reform movements go through Chabad without being changed in the process.
That is because Chabad, like Reform, accepts a light form of Judaism with few commitments from people whom it serves. How many do they actually convert into Chabad or even Orthodox Judaism? Show me the numbers!” Although Chabad is relatively Zionist for an ultra-Orthodox group, it is generally not thought of as being involved in overt Israel activism. Speaking to the Post earlier this year, however, the head of the movement’s IsraeLinks post-Birthright program, said he doesn’t see the program as representing a “major shift” from the movement’s traditional approach.
“Israel is definitely a good place to experience Judaism,” Yossi Witkes told the Post in July, adding that efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state on Diaspora college campuses have impacted how students perceive their Jewish identity and that bringing them to Israel “helps them be proud and active Jews and representatives of Israel.”