Imagine a world in which every newborn child receives a voucher toward early childhood Jewish education and a free trip to Israel.
That's what philanthropist Michael Steinhardt asked 4,000 delegates to the North American Jewish federation system's General Assembly to consider earlier this month.
The "Newborn Gift" would be part of an overall investment in strengthening Jewish education that Steinhardt is proposing. He told delegates that he was willing to contribute $10 million to the project, which he called the Fund for Our Jewish Future -- on condition that his contribution represent no more than 10 percent of the total fund.
In other words, the former Wall Street tycoon was challenging the audience to raise at least $90 million for Jewish education in the Diaspora.
Many in the room found Steinhardt's speech groundbreaking -- and highly relevant.
Chip Koplin of Macon, Ga., said the speech gave him the chills. Koplin said that of all his experiences at this year's General Assembly -- his first time in Israel -- Steinhardt's speech "is going to have the most profound effect on me."
"As an American challenged with the struggles of a small, Southern Jewish community" trying to sustain Jewish identity, Koplin said he could relate to the speech.
The speech came as federations struggle to fund their local and overseas needs amid flat campaigns. Still, federation leaders didn't appear to worry that Steinhardt's appeal would undermine their own efforts.
"He made the speech to a convention of North American federations, so clearly he is looking" to partner with them, said Jacob Solomon, executive vice president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. In fact, the federation system encourages such visionary ideas, Solomon said.
Steinhardt said the proposal is a response to decreasing Jewish identification among non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews.
Steinhardt mustered a litany of statistics to prove his point. Some 49 percent of American Jews identify as secular; only 20 percent give to Jewish causes, down from a post-World War II period when half the community gave to Jewish causes; and the number of American Jews is dwindling, according to the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, Steinhardt said.
"This part of the Diaspora community -- its majority -- is in crisis," Steinhardt said. While most Jewish activists focus on threats to Israel, in some respects the Diaspora is "far more vulnerable," he said.
"We don't know enough about our religion to take true pride in it. We remain Jewish on the vapors of cultural memory," Steinhardt said.
He also bemoaned what he called a glaring lack of Jewish leadership and innovative ideas.
By contrast, he pointed to the birthright israel program, which offers free trips to 18-26-year-olds who have never been on a peer trip to Israel. Steinhardt is one of the program's major funders.
"Birthright has been nothing less than a transformation in Jewish life," he said. However, "the future of the program is tenuous -- not because there are no young people who want to partake of this venture," but "simply because there's not enough money to pay for them."
While the federation system raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the Israel Emergency Campaign, it has difficulty raising "a fraction of that amount" for birthright, Steinhardt said.
Steinhardt called for a "Jewish renaissance for our young people." He said his agenda would focus on the "centrality of Israel for the Jewish soul," the "pre-eminence of Jewish peoplehood," encouragement of vibrant rabbis, the principle of charity and the "imperative of a Jewish education."
"Our survival depends on the next generation being educated," Steinhardt said.
The audience, which buzzed with electrified chatter after the speech, seemed to feel the same way. Many rushed the stage to shake Steinhardt's hand.
Passing out flyers outside the auditorium, Jewish students stated that they would raise $500,000 for Steinhardt's proposed fund.
Federation leaders largely praised the initiative but noted that the challenge is significant. They rejected the idea that the appeal might undermine their own fund-raising efforts.
Robert Schrayer, vice chairman of the United Jewish Communities, the federation umbrella organization, sounded a note of optimism.
"Can he do it? Yeah, I think there's a large amount of money available in the American Jewish community for a cause like this," Schrayer said.
John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York, praised the effort but took a wait-and-see approach.
"We need to have more details" on what such a plan would entail before commenting on its chances for success, Ruskay said.
As far as Steinhardt is concerned, the project is an imperative.
"The Jewish future of our children" is at stake, he said. "We owe our children nothing less."
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