Michael Steinhardt is never satisfied.
That’s what drives some of those who work with him crazy at times. But it’s also what drives his success as a businessman and major philanthropist.
While much of the Jewish community, here and in Israel, has been heralding birthright israel — the audacious project he helped found to give every young Jew in the world a free trip to Israel — as the most exciting and successful of efforts to increase Jewish identity, Steinhardt has been grumbling that it’s not enough.
Show him the numbers and the statistics of how more than 160,000 young men and women from 52 countries have participated in these free trips to Israel over the last eight years, with positive responses that have
been off the charts, and he expresses concern over how long those good feelings and memories will last after they come home.
He and others worry that after the high of the birthright trip, of being with thousands of Jewish peers and seeing the sights of Israel for an intense experience, these young people will revert back to the routines of their previous lives. Or, in venturing out to sample a campus or communal Jewish program or local synagogue service, they will be so turned off by the boredom of it all that they may never try it again.
What Steinhardt really wants to do is create an alternative Jewish community, since he views the current model as staid and outmoded, at best. And he and his colleagues have started by creating a birthright follow-up experience. They hope it will spark an engagement with Jewish life within a young generation that has indicated it has little interest in duplicating the Jewish experiences of parents and grandparents in terms of affiliation with organizations and synagogues.
Birthright Next, as this new venture is called, seeks to pick up on the social networking and camaraderie of the Israel trip, primarily by facilitating Friday night dinners, hosted by and for birthright alumni.
This is an approach that Chabad Lubavitch and other kiruv [religious outreach] groups have been employing for many years, combining the warm atmosphere of family and food with singing zmirot [Shabbat songs] and hearing a message about the week’s Torah portion.
For Steinhardt, though, whose atheism creates an implicit challenge to promote Jewish continuity without religion, the goal is not about saving souls but trying “to create community and spread Jewish values” and, down the road, increase Jewish literacy.
During a recent interview in his office, he spoke with an air of humility about his immodest goal to “change the Jewish world,” taking young people, many of whom he described as “Jewish ignoramuses,” and “prepare them for life as Jews.”
Always direct, Steinhardt said it was “not my desire to integrate them into the existing Jewish community. I don’t think much of it.”
Rather, it is to take “the spark” that the Birthright experience gave these alumni and add the “peer-to-peer” quality of informal dinners and interaction.
Steinhardt described the challenge as more difficult than attracting people to the birthright journey itself. There is no lure of a free trip, no focus as direct as experiencing Israel.
“We want to get people to go to Shabbat dinners and see how it plays out,” he said. “This would be a great achievement, though we don’t know what the ‘play out’ will be.”
The man hired to head Birthright Next is Daniel Brenner, a Reconstructionist rabbi with extensive experience in interreligious affairs. In his first year in the post, birthright alumni have been hired in 12 cities around the country to facilitate the Friday night dinners, aided by a grant of $12.5 million over five years from the Jim Joseph Foundation of San Francisco.
Though birthright is for young people aged 18 to 26, Brenner says he is targeting those who have graduated from college and entered the working world. The assumption is that Hillel and other existing Jewish campus groups will follow up with the college students returning from Birthright trips.
“I’ve focused all of my energy on what happens when you turn 22 and are suddenly removed from the campus and have five roommates, three you hate,” Brenner said. “That’s where the big Jewish gap is. What [Jewish] book do I even want to read?”
While Birthright Next sponsors weekend retreats, Jewish outreach booths at large music festivals, monologues events, Torah learning partner pairings and other programs, “for the most part we are trying to create social events that are not just about being social events,” Brenner said.
All of the programs are “connected to community building,” he noted, from winery tours combined with a Tu B’Shvat seder in San Francisco to a group of about 15-20 birthright alums in Washington, D.C. who go on “Shabbat hops,” as they call their visits to different synagogues on a Friday night, before going out for dinner together.
A key element in all of this is encouraging these birthright graduates to be hosts, not just guests, at events. “This reflects a real transition in how we are thinking,” Brenner explained.
“It embodies the message that young people should be asking themselves not just ‘Where can I find Jewish community that fits me?’ but ‘How can I create community?’”
Says Steinhardt: “If we are to have a Jewish community we can be proud of, it has to be different than the present Jewish community. I can’t influence who they’ll marry or whether they’ll go to synagogue. I don’t care. But I do care about Jewish values” and transmitting them to non-Jews as well as Jews.
It’s a grand plan that at its core is a stunning critique of current communal life, based on the premise that continuing what we have created is the path to extinction. But if Birthright Next leads to new creativity and commitment among the young people we fear losing, it will simply represent the latest stream in the river of Jewish life that constantly renews itself.