'Thanks, Momo, but I'll marry who I want'
One day before Taglit-Birthright Israel celebrated its 10th anniversary with a lavish event Tuesday morning, 88 young North Americans had arrived in Israel for a free 10-day trip. These participants, however, were not here courtesy of Birthright, the popular organization famous for providing these trips. They were they guests of Shlomo Lifshitz, the president of a private company that used to work with Birthright but says he left after being told to stop urging participants to marry Jewish partners and consider moving to Israel. Birthright had reportedly received complaints about Lifshitz from participants whose parents were intermarried or felt disparaged for dating non-Jews.
No longer bound by Birthright's ideological neutrality, Lifshitz, 53, unabashedly touted his views when he addressed his guests Monday night, encouraging them to "make Jewish babies," which has become somewhat of a catchphrase of his. While not all agree with his principles, telling Anglo File they would continue to marry whomever they want, most participants said he had a right to his opinions and that nobody had any reason to feel offended.
"Last night, I spoke about Jewish babies and everybody in the room was smiling," Lifshitz told Anglo File Tuesday. "When I speak about making Jewish babies, there will be people who don't like it - although that didn't happen yesterday. I'm not able to influence 100 percent. But if I'm able to influence the majority without having others feel they are not wanted, I did my job."
Lifshitz, popularly known as Momo, said he was aware many participants on his trip had intermarried parents or were dating non-Jews. "But I am not saying anything bad about anybody. My message is: Guys, you need to really try hard to find Jewish love. And if you find love and [your partner] is not Jewish, you have to understand that it's your duty to raise your children Jewish."
Yariv Ofer, a tour guide working for Lifshitz, said he started "playing matchmaking factory" after a little more than 24 hours with the group. "We're not politically correct," he told Anglo File. "We want to deliver a clear message, without trying to hide it because it might hurt someone. We're saying out loud what we think is important." Speaking to Anglo File in Jerusalem's Old City, about a dozen participants Tuesday said Lifshitz's views are not pushed down anyone's throat and would not offend anyone. "Momo has very strong opinions but that doesn't mean that everybody has to buy exactly into everything he says," said David, 21, of Cleveland. Brad, of New York, asserted Lifshitz's appeals will fall on some deaf ears and that personally, he does not care about his future's spouse's religion. "Thank you, Momo, for taking us on this trip - I appreciate your opinion, but I'm here to see the country," the 26-year-old said.
Brooklyn resident Felicia Unger, 30, welcomed Lifshitz's message. "He talked a lot about Jewish babies, I think it's wonderful. We [Jews] are small [in numbers] and we definitely should make Jewish babies." Unger added that she couldn't see how anyone could object to that policy. "If someone has a non-Jewish partner, that's their problem," she added.
Lifshitz's company, Oranim Educational Initiatives, used to be Birthright's most popular trip provider until their falling out in July, which led Lifshitz to offer his own free trips for North Americans. The $250,000 to pay for the first 133 participants - 88 of which arrived Monday, with 45 following this week - were entirely underwritten by Lifshitz himself. He said he is currently trying to secure funds for subsequent trips but did not provide more details.
Besides unadulterated promotion of endogamy and immigration, the independent Oranim program follows basically the same itinerary as traditional Birthright trips. The main difference is that Oranim focuses on ages 24 to 32 while Birthright's cutoff age is 26.