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August 26, 2009

Breaking! Birthright Disproportionately Funds Stealth Orthodox Outreach Organization Once Part Of Ohr Somayach

Birthright israel taglit logo Money given to Birthright as a restricted gift earmarked only for the JEC by mega-funder Michael Steinhardt on the recommendation of Birthright-Next's NYC head – a childhood friend of Steinhardt's son.

Early this month, Birthright hired the disgraced PR firm that illegally impersonated Conservative leader Rabbi Morris Allen and others in an attempt to discredit them. (Strangely, the Forward leaves this out of its report.)

And not long before that, reports surfaced that, despite all the money spent on Birthright, participants have no long term post-program change in Jewish involvement and only 4% are seriously involved in Jewish life after their Birthright trip.  (Strangely, the Forward leaves this out of its report, as well. This might be because the only news side editor at the Forward with any Jewish communal experience is, I'm told on vacation, leaving the paper in the hands of an editor with no such experience and little knowledge.)

And now we learn why. A childhood friend of Steinhardt's son, a woman Steinhardt is said to put much faith in, is closely tied to an Ohr Somaych front group that has been given the bulk of Birthright's post-trip programing money.

All the major (and pretty much all of the minor) players in the Jewish Enrichment Center are Orthodox. Most are haredi.

And the JEC itself was (and may still be) an official arm of Ohr Somayach, the haredi ba'al teshuva yeshiva and recruitment network:


Ever since Ohr Somayach made the JEWISH ENRICHMENT CENTER its outreach affiliate in Manhattan (176 Madison Avenue, between 33rd and 34th Streets), this vibrant facility headed by alumni Mordechai Mindell and Lawrence Hajioff has been buzzing with activity. Rav Schiller has given shiurim there and was Scholar-in-Residence at a Shabbaton. Another Shabbaton featured Jerusalem staff members Rabbis Dovid Gottlieb, Dovid Orlofsky and Saul Mandel. Guest speakers included scientist entrepreneur Mark Rutenberg from Monsey.

Please click to enlarge:

JEC Ohr Somayach Screenshot

The previous month, Ohr Somayach described the JEC this way:

OUTREACH: The JEWISH ENRICHMENT CENTER in Manhattan, headed by alumni Mordechai Mindell and Lawrence Hajioff, is the latest outreach post of Ohr Somayachs international network.

Please click to enlarge:

JEC Ohr Somayach 2

In other words, Steinhardt – the avowed champion of secular Jewish culture – is disproportionately funding an Orthodox missionary group and giving it exclusive access to thousands of Birthright participants.

What follows is the Forward's report. (Thanks to David Kelsey for bringing this and the additional Ohr Somayach proof to my attention.)

Largest Outreach Effort for Alums Of Birthright Raises Concerns
Program’s Orthodox Character Has Caused ‘Debate and Dissent’

By Gal Beckerman • The Forward

Taglit-Birthright Israel, the highly regarded Jewish communal initiative that has sent more than 200,000 young Jews on free trips to Israel, has carefully tended its image as pluralistic and 

Birthright israel taglit logo

inclusive. But the religious slant and political orientation of the largest, most well-funded organizer of follow-up programs for Birthright alumni is raising concerns, even among top Birthright officials.

The Jewish Enrichment Center, which some people characterize as a kiruv, or Orthodox outreach organization, has been given a virtual monopoly on reaching out to the tens of thousands of Birthright alumni who return to the New York Tri-State area. This large pool of young adults represents one third of all those who have gone on Birthright trips, a majority of whom are non-Orthodox Jews.

The center is the official New York partner of Birthright Israel NEXT, an arm of Taglit-Birthright established three years ago to fulfill the critical job of follow up. This new effort provides funds to more than two dozen Hillel houses, local Jewish federations and not-for-profits nationwide to encourage alumni engagement in Jewish life. But the Jewish Enrichment Center receives more than all these other beneficiaries combined.

The group was given $1.4 million last year, according to Birthright Israel NEXT’s executive director, Rabbi Daniel Brenner. In 2007, the last year for which the Forward was able to attain tax returns, the JEC received $1.87 million. By contrast, that year, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life was granted a total of $547,516 for programming nationwide.

The JEC also stands out among Birthright grantees because its two educational directors are Orthodox rabbis and it places more focus on Chabad-style inspirational and Torah-learning classes than on planning secular Jewish cultural events like concerts and parties. Although the programming is nondenominational and opens its doors to — and particularly seeks out — the unaffiliated, it has been controversial enough to grab the attention of Birthright’s president.

“There has been some debate and dissent about the ‘quote unquote’ Orthodox nature of the Jewish Enrichment Center,” said Robert Aronson, president of the Birthright Israel Foundation.

Aronson, who became president at the end of last year, said that although others in Birthright share these concerns, the foundation board strongly backs the JEC. He and others say this has to do with Michael Steinhardt, the philanthropist who helped create Taglit-Birthright almost 10 years ago. Steinhardt funds Birthright NEXT and specified in a “restricted gift” that his money should go directly to supporting the JEC.

Aronson and others also emphasized that Steinhardt puts a lot of faith in Rebecca Sugar, New York director of Birthright Israel NEXT — and, according to a recent article in the Financial Times, a childhood friend of Steinhardt’s son, David — who first brought the JEC to Steinhardt’s attention. Both Sugar and Michael Steinhardt declined to be interviewed for this article.

The infusion of Birthright money, which started with $1 million in 2005, allowed the JEC to greatly expand its staff and programs.

While Chabad-Lubavitch operates Jewish Enrichment Centers around the country, the center in New York is independent. It began in 1998 when Daniel Green, an Orthodox-trained rabbi, opened up a small center for Jewish outreach on the second floor of a building on Madison Avenue and East 34th Street in Manhattan. He eschewed denominational categories and tried to bring in young people who would normally be alienated from synagogues by creating a lounge space where, he said, people could feel “relaxed, where they could more easily relate, where they could grow as Jews.” The JEC sponsored mixers for singles, organized services on the High Holy Days, and held classes on Hebrew and Jewish identity. The idea, from its inception, was to bring people closer to Judaism through small steps, speaking about religion in a colloquial, open way that would seem nonjudgmental.

The JEC continued to be a small operation until a few years ago. Green has left, and the center is now run by Matthew Mindell, a former actor, and Lawrence Hajioff, a rabbi trained at an Orthodox rabbinical college, Ohr Sameach. When the Birthright Israel NEXT connection was forged, they moved into a sleek new space in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and evolved into a staff of 14 people from only two.

Their mission, however, has remained the same. As Hajioff, a charismatic and engaging teacher who once worked as a standup comic, articulated it: “We’re not a synagogue. We don’t have an agenda. We just want to provide education so people will increase their love of Judaism.”

Hajioff pointed to the center’s bar and bat mitzvah program as the strongest example of its success. JEC runs a seven-week program for Birthright alumni who never had a bar or bat mitzvah. There are regular Friday night dinners and Hebrew classes, a course of Holocaust studies and a challah baking class. The JEC also runs return trips to Israel for Birthright alumni, which Hajioff said provide an opportunity for a deeper experience than the first, whirlwind 10-day visit.

Hajioff rejected the Orthodox label even though he himself is very observant and was trained in an all-male Orthodox college. He thinks it will alienate some of his potential students who have never before encountered Judaism. “We are dealing with people who have no background, for the most part,” Hajioff said. “They don’t even care. So I should start creating, you know, I’m this, I’m that. It’s not worth it.”

Brenner said that when he assumed his post in 2007, there was already a “well-established relationship” with JEC “as the alumni association for Birthright Israel alumni in New York.”

After spending time observing Hajioff teach, Brenner did not feel that the rabbi was “in his teaching style or manner exclusionary or putting out any proselytizing vibe.” But he has heard complaints from some alumni that the JEC does have an Orthodox focus, and this had bothered him.

“Are there people who are the typical disconnected Birthright participants who are going there and benefiting? For sure,” Brenner said. “But are there also people who are more informed who come away thinking that some of the offerings are slanted towards religious observance? Yeah, of course.”

Other people outside Birthright were less equivocating.

“They are a classic, Orthodox kiruv,” said Andrew Bachman, former director of the New York University Hillel. “They are not a pluralistic organization by any stretch. It’s not like the Jewish Enrichment Center is interested in enriching people on perspectives of Judaism that are non-Orthodox, which is a shame. In a world that is becoming increasingly pluralistic and where all the interesting stuff happening in the Jewish community is through pluralistic interactions and cross pollinations of the denominations, it’s a shame that you go to the most cross-pollinating social class in our society, young people, and deny them the opportunity to be Jewishly enriched in a pluralistic way.”

Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, commended Birthright for its follow-up work with alumni but was frustrated to hear that the JEC was staffed with Orthodox rabbis. All the denominations, he thought, should get a chance to make their case, because they represent different forms of Judaism.

“When some people say, let’s do away with labels, that’s simply another way of saying, I want to promote my type of Judaism without talking about it, without being honest and upfront about it,” Yoffie said, referring to the line taken by the JEC rabbis. “The question that I ask would be, are you suggesting there’s no difference between Reform Judaism and Orthodox Judaism? And the answer is invariably no, that’s not what they’re suggesting.”

The JEC has also been criticized for its politics. Over the past year, it has hosted a series of speakers with exclusively politically conservative views without also presenting any counterpoints.

In recent months, both John Bolton, the hawkish former American ambassador to the United Nations, and Dick Morris, a controversial conservative commentator, spoke in the brick-walled center on West 13th Street. In the first few minutes of his talk, a video of which was later posted online, Morris blasted President Obama for turning “freedom into socialism.” He then lamented that we live in a world where Iran can assault protesters in the street and North Korea can have the bomb, but “God forbid, Netanyahu builds an extra bedroom onto some cottage for a newborn baby on the West Bank, and all hell breaks loose.”

A September 9 event, advertised by the JEC as an “Update on President Obama’s Health Care Plan,” actually will feature only one speaker, Grace-Marie Turner, president of the Galen Institute, which is a not-for-profit that is funded in part by pharmaceutical companies and promotes what it calls “free-market ideas in the health sector.” The views espoused on Turner’s Web site place her on the most conservative side of the health care debate, and the Galen Institute has applauded those who were disrupting town hall meetings all over the country that were meant to generate a debate over health care reform.

Brenner publicly criticized the selection of Turner on his blog. He told the Forward: “If Birthright Israel is engaging in any kind of programming, we have got to maintain our integrity as a 501(c)(3). We cannot do anything that is considered to be political lobbying activity. And our partners cannot do that, either. So if it is a situation that our programming in any city is really pushing one political agenda or another, that would be a concern of mine.”

On his blog, he said that Turner’s views about eliminating all public funding for abortion led to his concern. He was worried that there would not be critical conversation taking place, that only one view would be heard. “While I cannot attend her speech,” Brenner wrote at the end of his post, “I hope that someone raises these issues.”


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Ummm... Why should anyone care? So they do Orthodox Kiruv. So?

All the major (and pretty much all of the minor) players in the Jewish Enrichment Center are Orthodox. Most are haredi.

Oh my g-d! Haredi yet!

I was at an outreachy Shabbat event in a large metro city sponsored in part by Taglit. the person running had his non-jewish girlfriend around, and at least one student seemed to have been involved with this taglit/ohr somayach thing and was set to go to israel soon. the whole situation of the event, hosted by someone who was dating a (nice) goya, funded by Taglit, was incredibly strange and troubling to me.

Thanks. That's wonderful news. Steinhard, who is not Orthodox by any stretch, reaches across to the Orthodox to work together on behalf of Jewish identity.

Now if you feel that there is a need for non Chareidi outreach, too, let's encourage other organizations, for example the Manhattan Jewish Experience and YU's Center for the Jewish Future, as well as NJOP to join.

Quite obviously, any additional organizations that want to draw birthright alumni need to invest in what draws the people, which, apparently, includes a religious-spiritual component.

Then, competition will push all participants to bring our youth even greater programs.

Thanks for the uplifting news.

Birthright is supposed to be non-sectarian (as long as you're Jewish, as defined by having one Jewish parent and considering yourself Jewish). Insofar as these trips give kids (if you call a 26-year-old a "kid") the opportunity to connect with their Jewish heritage, it's a great idea. To the extent that Birthright is merely a moveable JAP-fest, designed to propagate the Jewish "race," it's not.

When an obviously Orthodox organization is given preferential treatment, it violates the fundamental precepts of Birthright, as defined by that great atheist Michael Steinhardt himself. I believe, however, that it's the political orientation of JEC, not the religious aspects, which is the driving force here.

Nevertheless, if most of the non-affiliated Jews who go on Birthright trips discover that the post-Birthright activities included indoctrination into Orthodox or Haredi Jewry, a "free" trip wouldn't be enough to get these kids to go.

The Birthright generation is the generation that elected Obama. The Federation world is dominated by Republican, right-wing Obama bashers. And they wonder why they can't get Birthright graduates involved in Federation?
What kind of drugs are these people taking?
If they want to involve the Birthright generation, they should turn over the lists of Birthright graduates to organizations like Jewish for Racial and Economic Justice, Jewish Community Action and other social action groups more closely aligned with the ideas of this generation of Jews.

Taglit shouldn't turn over the lists to anybody, at least without the explicit consent of the participants.

The failure to follow-up belongs to the organziations that sponsor birthright trips. Hillel, the various religious movements (OU, USCJ, URJ) and the assorted Zionist orgs run these trips. They need to reach out to the alumni - and having the funding to do that would be helpful.

"Taglit shouldn't turn over the lists to anybody, at least without the explicit consent of the participants."

Participants agree to be contacted after the trip. Standard part of the application form.

"The failure to follow-up belongs to the organziations that sponsor birthright trips."

I believe it was Einstein who said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again with the expectation that results will be different. These organizations have failed in their mission for years. The vast majority of young Jews do not and cannot relate to them. Its time to try something new.

What exactly is the point of this article?

Contacted by Taglit, sure. At least I'd hope so. But should they get on a list where they're solicited by every Jewish charity on the planet, along with their parents?

Or by every kollel in Boro Park? My late father once gave some kollel $25 and I get bombarded by pleas for money every day (I'm the executor of his estate so his address is also mine).

The organizations I mentioned do not have as a primary function, asking for money. They are interested in social activism, helping the poor, lobbying for the handicapped, running food banks for the poor, etc. They actually DO something rather then just fund something. If we want young people to get involved, offer them the opportunity to get involved, get their hands dirty, roll up their sleeves, work for something they can believe in. Checkbook Judaism results in zero commitment.

as a birthright alumnus and jec participant, i think the author has missed the point.....mr steinhardt has every right to give his money to whomever he wants....

as for the jec and follow up programming...their agenda is simple...doors are open for discussion and education...if someone does not like what they see or hear....the door is still open for them to leave...

this is america...if there is a group that wants to do what jec has been doing a different way....go ahead and do it...no one will stop you...

and steinhardt may even give you money for it too....all you need to do is ask...

Hey Mike, can I have $10 million?

state of the Jews wrote: The Birthright generation is the generation that elected Obama. The Federation world is dominated by Republican, right-wing Obama bashers. And they wonder why they can't get Birthright graduates involved in Federation?

Where did you get this incoherence from? The Federation leadership is disproportionally Democrat. It's the Orthodox that are disproportionally Republican, and they are not overrepresented in Federations.

Having both ran programs and having been targeted by direct marketing charities, I must agree with Apikoros that names and addresses should not be handed over to third parties without explicit consent.

However, the golden mean is what is known as renting, not buying a mailing list. In this scheme, the third party does not get the names and addresses, but they hand their promotional material over to the mailing list owner, which sends it around. That, of course, needs to be done with care, so as not to drown and alienate the customers through excessive marketing of even very good programs.

Handing names over to charities for the sake of fundraising is not appropriate. They could, instead, give seminars on giving (and they do, google for Jewish giving circles) and compile catalogs of qualifying organizations, without giving those outside charities the opportunity to pester people at dinner time or fill their mailboxes with dead trees.

The ultimate question is not whether JEC is Orthodox or not, the question is are they effective? Right now only 4% are involved post Birthright, is JEC changing that statistic? If they are, then they deserve funding, if not then another organization should be chosen.

So far I haven't seen thousands of Birthright alumni embracing Orthodoxy, so I'm not exactly sure what the purpose of this article is.

"The Federation leadership is disproportionally Democrat."

Name a Federation whose leadership is disproportionally Democratic other than Boston. New York, Miami etc have been and continue to be dominated by Republican, right-wing Jews.
You assume the objective of social action groups is to ask for money, which is ridiculous. Their objective is to create social change. Problem is organizations like AJ Committee, AJ Congress etc, have one objective: to perform a walletectomy. Most of the young groups actively Jewish are groups who want to involve individuals in real community organizing/social action. The failure of Federations - and for that matter most conservative synagogues - is a reflection of failed policies that expect the Mountain to come to Mohammad rather then starting the other way around.
As I said earlier, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again with the expectation that results will be different. So what is your solution to the obvious failure of Birthright?

If I wanted to join a left-wing group and save the world, I'd join the Sierra Club. Or Greenpeace. Neither of which is especially Jewish.

If I wanted to get drunk and get laid, for free, I'd go on a Birthright trip.

the fact is, friends, that it is the orthodox in whose hands the future of the Jewish people lies. The state of Israel is a disaster, and most nonfrum people couldn't give a rat's ass whether their children were Jewish or not -- they might prefer that their kids marry other Jews, but when Kathleen O'hara brings father McCarthy to co-officiate at the wedding with Rabbi Shira Slobovowitz (name made up - no offense to any existing people by that name) they will still dance and make merry, even as their grandchildren light the hanukkah candles under the Christmas tree.
There is no Jewish future without Judaism. Unfortunately, or fortunately "Judaism" is what the Orthodox do best.

NotParticularlyFrumButSickOfBS , if the only future for Judaism is an Ohr Somayach/Gedoylim Judaism, then may the Jewish people cease to exist.

Better out than haredi.

Let me be blunt: Liberal Christianity is a far, far superior religion to Haredism.

Give me an O'Hara any time over an O'Haredi.

Get the battery acid ready, frumbag.

""""My late father once gave some kollel $25 and I get bombarded by pleas for money every day (I'm the executor of his estate so his address is also mine).

Posted by: Mr. Apikoros """"

LOL This happened to me- Mr A should write out a couple of $1.00 checks- get a wood stove and get free fuel this winter. As the Post Office deliver sacks of fuel err mail

Rebecca Sugar is the daughter of Harry Freund, who was Michael Steinhardt's roommate at the U. of Pennsylvania (class of '60). According to Steinhardt's autobiography, the two shared an apartment until they both got married. Steinhardt described it as a real-life version of "The Odd Couple." Guess which one was "Oscar" and which was "Felix?"

David Steinhardt and Rebecca Freund were fellow students at the U. of Pennsylvania in the late '80's and early '90's.

"Better out than Hardei"

Then die out DK.
Hope you don't have any kids, (though they probably wouldn't be Jewish anyway).

A rabid animal like you needs to be put down!

Hey FSM,

Why don't you convert to Islam already? Isn't that what you really want anyway?

Hey DK,
It's FMS thank you, and had I been born a Moslem, it would be perfectly acceptable to practice Islam. Thankfully, I was born a Jew, and as such, I observe authentic Judaism, so no I don't really want to convert to Islam already :) Have you been baptized yet?


Are "Failed Messiah SUCKS" and "Failed Messiah Sucks" two different people?

They seem to hate on DK with slightly different voices...

B'sD -
There is no hate on DK as a person, only for the garbage he spouts. Unfortunately sometimes the cancer spreads to a point of no return. No different voices, just posted twice from 2 different IP addresses, is that what you're referring to? Because I know you guys like to check on that kind of stuff.

Moshe Rabeinu actually said the following, at Har Sinai: Baba Booey! Fafa Fo hi!And f--- Jackie!

Can't we interpret this to mean that the Challah must be turned 138 times to the right on Shabbos, or else we have utterly failed god and here comes another holocaust as our discipline?

i think the torah was written by men who's fathers beat the crap out of them...no disrespect meant.

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