Seeking Peace Between Jews, One Israel Program at a Time

As community funds dwindle, Jewish Agency chief tries to allay years-long feud with rival Birthright.

Following years of tension between the Jewish Agency and the Birthright Israel-Taglit program JA Chairman Natan Sharasky has brought the groups to reconcile.

The reconciliation took place at the Israeli Embassy in Washington on Monday, on the eve of the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities.

Sharansky held a joint reception for leaders of Birthright and MASA, a year-long program for Diaspora Jewish youth run by the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government.

Birthright brings young Jews from the Diaspora, mainly from North America, on 10-day identity building trips to Israel. It was founded 10 years ago by philanthropists Michael Steinhart and Charles Bronfman, and is funded by private contributions, although it receives some money from the Jewish Agency as well.

MASA, which brings youth to study or work here for one year, was founded five years ago by the JA, with Israeli government assistance.

Both programs are considered successful, but they have been fighting over credit for their successes.

"It is never a simple matter to appease bodies that come from different places in the Jewish world, but now it has become critical," Sharansky told Haaretz.

"The Jews have less money [now], and criticism on college campuses is growing. We have to increase the number of Jews with a connection to Israel, and for that, there has to be cooperation, at least. Each program has its strong points. Birthright has had unprecedented success in bringing in private-sector funds.

"But more than half of all the people who come on Birthright do so via Israel Experience, a Jewish Agency company. We must utilize the advantages of both programs, and there is no reason for rivalry. Their aim is the same. If we can bring peace between the Jews, perhaps we'll be able to go further."

When Birthright co-founder Steinhart was asked Tuesday why such a large part of Jewish philanthropy goes to non-Jewish projects, he said it was worth it.

"The intention is to say, look in the mirror. Who are you? To what extent are you Jewish? What percentage of your life is Jewish? The more we become integrated into American society, the challenge of maintaining our identity becomes more difficult."

Rachel Cohen, who participated in Birthright's first program a decade ago, comes from a mixed Jewish-Christian family, "a descendant of seven generations of Christian missionaries." The visit to Israel changed her life, she said yesterday. "When I first recited a Hebrew prayer at the Western Wall, this connected me with the tradition. The journey challenged me to reexamine my life and gave me the inspiration to concentrate on my studies in International Relations. My family was also surprised."

Since then, her younger brothers have also participated. "Thank you for continuing to invest in people like me," she told the program's founders.