Michael Steinhardt, one of world Jewry’s most philanthropic benefactors and a co-founder of Birthright Israel, delivered a scathing criticism this week of all that he sees wrong with the Jewish world today and singled out non-Orthodox life.
In a television interview on Thursday with Mark S. Golub of Shalom TV, Steinhardt expressed his deep disappointment with the traditional Hebrew school system and characterized many of the young people he has met through Birthright Israel as “Jewish barbarians” who have never in their lives even experienced a Sabbath dinner.
Steinhardt, who identifies himself as anything but an Orthodox Jew, had especially harsh criticism for non-Orthodox Jewish life in the Diaspora. He expresses his disappointment and anger with those often described as “wonderful educators” in the Reform and Conservative movements for having done “such a poor job under-educating our next generations” and by failing to distinguish Jewish values from Christian ones.
From Steinhardt’s perspective, it has become virtually impossible to identify a non-Orthodox Jewish student at any secular university from a non-Jewish student. “I think that many of the trends that we have seen – such as the fact that 55-60 percent of non-Orthodox Jews are marrying out, such as the fact that only 15 percent of total philanthropy of Jews goes to Jewish causes – are reflective of that fact that non-Orthodox Jewish education in America has been, and continues to be, a shandah – an abysmal failure.”
Steinhardt also blasted the Jewish leadership in America, saying that there has been much too much emphasis on the Holocaust – “an event of extraordinary enormity” – and misplaced fears about anti-Semitism in America. “Anti-Semitism has always been far more mythical than real in America; it’s as if organizations have to create the bogeyman of anti-Semitism in order to raise money.”
Steinhardt further argued that as long as the Jewish community is obsessed with the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, these concerns detract “from our ability to think about the Jewish future – because it’s hard to be focused intensively on the Holocaust and, at the same time, to think about what we want to accomplish and what we want to be in the 21st Century.”
Steinhardt offered a foreboding assessment for the future of Diaspora Jewry. “It is a moribund Jewish world, continuously losing its young people, whose tzedaka has dramatically changed where only a small fraction of total philanthropy is going to Jewish causes; interest in Israel is declining; the number of American Jews going to Israel is not growing; where the culmination of Jewish life seems to be (for the young person) the bar mitzvah – and from there it is all downhill.”
While Steinhardt maintains that the most effective tool in instilling a sense of Jewish identity in young people is for them to visit the Land of Israel, he does not hold back from criticizing Israeli politicians and post-Zionist aspects of modern Israeli culture. “Its [Israel’s] politicians are, writ large, awful; its businessmen are of less than glorious quality; and when you walk down Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv and you look around at these people and you say, ‘This is who you admire?’ I often say it’s easier to be a Zionist in Manhattan than it is in Tel Aviv.”
But despite the challenges that exist in the modern Jewish state, Steinhardt admits that Israel has always been his great love and even his “substitute for religion.”
“While the religion of Judaism is so deeply disappointing – its practice, its verbiage, its inability to reflect realistically upon our lives; I could forgive almost anything vis-à-vis Israel. Israel was and still is my Jewish miracle!”
Overall, Steinhardt expressed joy and appreciation for being able to contribute to and participate in Jewish life to the extent that he has. “I really have been fortunate having the freedom to make my own choices, to have contributed as I have contributed, to have expressed myself with the freedom to be as nasty as I am to the ‘Jewish establishment’ – deservedly so! And it’s been a wonderful experience.”