Interesting Times: The power of bubbles

Retreat centers will become the new core institution for Jewish life in the modern era.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
Eight months ago, I wrote a column calling for a Jewish Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, someone who would dedicate their mega-fortune to saving the Jewish people - and specifically to fully funding the birthright israel program. My dream is coming true. Sheldon Adelson is stepping up to the plate. Adelson, the son of a Boston cab driver, may be on his way to becoming the richest man on earth. According to Forbes, he is already the third-richest American (after Gates and Buffett), with $20.5 billion. Plus, the magazine reports that over the past two years he has earned almost $1 million an hour, a pace faster than any in history, and one that could drive him past Gates by 2012, even assuming that Gates's own wealth continues to grow by $2.5 billion a year. Now Adelson's philanthropy has begun to accelerate as well. On January 1, he established the Adelson Family Charitable Foundation which, by disbursing $200 million annually, will be by far the world's largest private foundation dedicated to Jewish causes. This month, Adelson's foundation announced that it will be giving $30 million to birthright israel this year, allowing birthright to clear out its waiting list and double to 20,000 the number of young Jews who will receive a free educational trip to Israel. This is fabulous news. It means that birthright - the most daring, creative, and successful effort of the Jewish world to bolster identity and fight assimilation - may now be fully funded, eventually fulfilling Michael Steinhardt's dream of bringing a majority of every Jewish age cohort to Israel. EVEN TODAY, many people dismiss birthright as a huge boondoggle, wasting millions on giving Jewish kids a free vacation. These critics ignore the research that reveals that birthright alumni show a marked increase in many measures of Jewish identity compared to peers who remained behind on the waiting list. They don't understand that there is no other program that reaches exactly the people that our community had groaned it could not reach - those who, perhaps more by default than by preference, are unaffiliated, disinterested, and Jewishly ignorant. They also don't understand why birthright has such an impact, and the profound implications this should have for Jewish philanthropy and community action. The short answer is: Jewish bubbles work. As the introduction to a fascinating issue of the Steinhardt Foundation's journal Contact ( explains: "It has become clear that one of the most significant determinants of a program's effectiveness is the retreat component. From camping to birthright israel, retreats form the basis of some of the most salient programs of education and identity enrichment. Few methods compare with the intensity and authenticity provided by total immersion." Birthright is a retreat, not a vacation. The simple act of bringing together thousands of young Jews in a bubble of time and space, and in an encounter with another Jewish bubble, the Jewish state, has the power to change lives. Judaism itself works by way of bubbles. Shabbat, those who savor it know, is a bubble, or what Abraham Joshua Heschel called, "a palace in time." Since those living in Shabbat-observant communities need to be within walking distance of each other, this too creates a bubble. The haredi world, of course, takes this Jewish approach to extremes by severing itself from wider society in many other ways. When encountered in a bubble, Judaism comes alive. As Yitz Greenberg writes in Contact, Jewish retreats "make the Jewish message central and natural rather than marginal and abnormal, as it is in the majority society setting... When good, life-enriching Jewish substance is communicated through intellectual and experiential learning, the effect is electrifying." I experienced this myself at the Brandeis Collegiate Institute. This four-week program of Jewish living and learning still has an impact on me 25 years later. It was there that it clicked: Judaism was more than ritual and something I grew up with, but a moral and intellectual system with a mission to change the world. Greenberg argues that we are at one of those rare moments in Jewish history when our core institution is shifting. In biblical times, Jewish peoplehood was organized around our liberation from slavery and God's miracles. Next, the Temple and Jewish sovereignty became the center. Then, over centuries of exile, synagogues, rabbis and Jewish study anchored Jewish existence. Now, Greenberg argues, this generation has the "once-in-a-millennium opportunity" to establish retreat centers as the engine of the "new infrastructure of Jewish life." From only a handful today, he predicts that every major Jewish community will eventually have its own retreat center. IN A CONTROVERSIAL study, Steven M. Cohen shows that American Jewry is bifurcating along the fault line of intermarriage. The in-married are "riding an inter-generational 'up escalator' in Jewish education" that is strengthening those who are already identified while, despite the herculean efforts of "outreach" organizations, intermarried families exhibit opposite trends. The upshot is that, despite a recent Brandeis study claiming that the Jewish population is larger than thought, we have yet to reach the tipping point where demographic decline is replaced by sustained growth. The new level of Jewish giving, jump-started by the Adelson Foundation, could turn this ship around. Fully funding birthright, including follow-on programs, should be just the beginning. All Jewish bubbles - camping, retreats, day schools, adult and early childhood education - hold enormous potential waiting to be tapped. This could be the year that, inspired by the leadership and generosity of the son of a Jewish cab driver, the Jewish people decides to save itself.

- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11