Boteach trumpets ‘inspirational impact’ of Birthright

Tour of Israel taken by US Rabbi declared to be “incredibly intensive, very challenging and utterly rewarding.”

Birthright 311 (photo credit: Mendy Boteach)
Birthright 311
(photo credit: Mendy Boteach)
Maverick US Rabbi and author Shmuley Boteach is in Israel leading a Taglit- Birthright trip.
The tour, which is being conducted in coordination with the capital’s Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies, draws to a close on Tuesday. It was declared by Boteach to be “incredibly intensive, very challenging and utterly rewarding.”
This is the second Birthright trip Boteach has led; he said the program is the most extensive and far reaching educational initiative in modern Jewish experience. Birthright sponsors free 10-day heritage trips to Israel for Diaspora Jews 18 to 26 who have neither traveled to Israel before on a peer educational trip or study program nor have lived in Israel past the age of 12.
“I’m not a believer in life altering experiences, they come and go,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s possible to go through this 10-day period and not have something fundamental change, although that change will be different for every individual.”
The Mayanot group has experienced a number of highlights during the 10-day tour, including a meeting on Monday with Ron Dermer, one of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s senior advisers; crawling through a 2,000-year-old tunnel just south of the Old City of Jerusalem that was used by Jews fleeing the Romans during the Great Revolt and referenced by ancient historian Josephus; and an address by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon.
Participants who had never received Hebrew names took the opportunity to do so. On Sunday, those who so wished chose for themselves a Hebrew name and had a bar or bat mitzva ceremony in front of the Western Wall where each individual “was raised up on a chair and the dancing continued until everyone was drenched with sweat.”
“Unfortunately, many Jewish American youths believe that their Jewish identity is stultifying, un-inspirational and basically boring. Often times they will also get pressure from their parents to marry someone Jewish, but this request is totally without context,” Boteach said.
“That’s why this experience is one of the highlights of my life. When you see 40 young Jews changing before your eyes, embracing a strong Jewish identity and creating a connection and a closeness with Israel, it is very inspiring and shows what can be achieved.”
Boteach said, though, that there is much more to do for North American Jewish youth.
“Nowhere near enough is being done, we’re merely scratching the surface and we’re thinking too small,” he said.
The groundbreaking aspect of Birthright, he said, is the ambitious scope of the program dreamed up by its founder Michael Steinhardt of the US, along with fellow philanthropist Charles Bronfman of Canada.
“The best way now to rejuvenate the American Jewish community is to make Judaism mainstream; we need more TV, films, plays and books which contain and include Jewish values,” he said.
To this end, Boteach recently helped to establish G-I-V-E, or the Global Institute for Values Education. Launched together with US House of Representatives, Boteach said that G-I-V-E is “designed to bring the values of Judaism to unaffiliated Jews instead of waiting for them to come to us.”
The institute aims to train a small group of Jewish students in “the art of presenting and propagating universal Jewish and biblical values,” through writing, broadcasting and entrepreneurship, and will start in New York city this fall.
“We want to create a number of top exponents of Jewish values, people who are schooled in teaching the universality of Jewish ideals, and creating a network of people who are able to help transform American culture through the enrichment of Jewish values.”
Of the Birthright trip that concludes on Tuesday, Boteach said that he, like many others, was until recently only aware of the program from what he’d heard. “I wanted to see for myself the kind of impact it’s having on secular, non-affiliated Jews, and it’s clear that the effect on every single person who participates on the trips is deeply profound,” he said.