After birthright - the desert

A place to build the inner self instead of spacing out on the beaches of Goa.

breaking the ice desert, (photo credit: AP)
breaking the ice desert,
(photo credit: AP)
Mega-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt recently took a long look at what his $125-million investment in keeping Jews Jews has accomplished over the past 13 years. Not one to pretty up words, his conclusion was that "things haven't changed much." Steinhardt's response was to plan to close down at least 18 undisclosed programs of his upward of 100 initiatives, no doubt causing quakes among his beneficiaries. But his intent to concentrate on certain areas is, at the same time, a huge goad to creative energies. One focus will be follow-up programs for the almost 150,000 18 to 26-year-old Jews who have come to Israel on free 10-day birthright/Taglit experiences for which Steinhardt was a founding partner. And the numbers will be increasing because Sheldon Adelson, the third-richest person in the US according to the 2007 Forbes rating, has committed $60 million over two years to make sure every birthright applicant can go to Israel the same year they apply. The challenge of birthright returnees is apparent - to capture their sparks of self-discovery, of wanting to know more and to do more Jewishly, of searching for ways to be part of the Jewish people at home and in Israel. Steinhardt's infusion of dollars will fan these sparks into an explosion of program ideas. ONE OF THEM is gestating in the Judean desert, down the road plunging from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea. A mile or so off that road, I recently drove along a winding track from the village of Alon to a cluster of caravanim. In the semi-permanent prefabs, housing a dining room and kitchen, a study hall and separate sleeping/living quarters for men and women, about 25 young Israelis were spending five months in exquisite isolation at the Midrasha. They came from secular kibbutzim where children don't know what a Shabbat kiddush is or ever go to synagogue or see a mezuza on doorways; from Orthodox Zionist families; from Israel's Reform and Conservative movements. Ages 20-29, most of them had completed at least two years of army or national service and were taking a breath - not to space out on Goa beaches, but to build their inner selves before heading to university. Some were officers from elite IDF units. I CAME to check the reality of what I had heard about this desert wonder, to meet the students and Midrasha founder Micah Goodman. Five students joined me on a shaded deck overlooking the sensuous hills, parched from summer drought. They had been together for three months. Strangely devoid of self-consciousness or cynicism, these young men and women, some of whom had already experienced social and military responsibilities beyond their years, spoke about holes in their learning, about what they might contribute to society, and about wanting to know more about the meaning of being Jews and Israelis. Dror, after six years in the IDF, chose the Midrasha because here, he said, he could learn the prayer book, Talmud and Bible alongside Dante, Shakespeare and Augustine's Confessions. "I am able to read myself through all of them. King Saul led me to consider the Winograd Commission's investigation of last summer's war in Lebanon." "This place breaks down categories," explained On, from Revivim, a secular kibbutz. "I tried a yeshiva, but for me it was too focused and too closed. I am trying to understand Jewish culture - what it is to be Jewish." MICAH GOODMAN, director of the two-year-old Midrasha, is something of a wunderkind. At 33, he holds a PhD in Jewish thought from Hebrew University. His public lectures in Jerusalem draw hundreds. Frequently smiling from inner pleasure, his eyes and hands in motion transmit the passion of his purpose. "We are encouraging the will to learn, giving tools to learn and developing the ability to create social change. At universities most students hunger for grades; here they hunger for identity and meaning." They've created a formula: an isolated environment where young adults live together 24/7, where they organize their own society with rules that consider people with different religious and personal needs, where hours of learning and arguing are balanced with yoga and hikes to Jerusalem and swimming in the fresh pools of the canyon of Wadi Kelt. "We choose extraordinary teachers," Micah says, "not to fit with each other, but to be extremists in their love for what they teach." The result? Joel put it this way: "The founding Zionists built something in Israel; our parents slumbered and took for granted what the founders created; our generation is awaking and noticing that we were deprived of Jewish, Zionist and historical education." LIFE FOR a young Jew is different in Washington, New York, LA, Toronto, Chicago and the smaller towns of North America. But are there not many who have returned from the Jewish infusion of whirlwind birthright trips looking for more, who are asking questions about their Jewish selves? And isn't the time between university and the first full-time job a time that beckons for a break devoted to growth? The Ein Prat Israeli Academy for Leadership, headed by Erez Eshel, that includes the Midrasha, is planning an American program in Israel modeled on the post-army Midrasha. It's being born. Not this year, but soon, groups of American Jews will arrive in the desert twice a year for five months, living on the Alon campus with the post-army students, sharing their field trips and non-academic experiences. No question that this is a selective program for a carefully chosen few. But the hope is that its participants will drop like precious pebbles into the Jewish pond, radiating outward to touch many more lives. I want to ask Michael Steinhardt: What are the odds that those who come to Alon at a critical juncture in their lives, or to other programs that will emerge in its image, will return with knowledge, inspiration, strength and preparation for significant moral leadership in whatever they choose to do? Mr. Steinhardt, you are a tough, skeptical visionary. Come take a look. Their Web site is The writer is a contributing editor to Moment and Biblical Archaeology Review.