The Vision of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life
American Jews are fortunate to be living in the freest and most open society the world has ever known. The American experiment of democracy, equality and civic engagement has provided incredible opportunities for Jews to assimilate into the social, cultural, economic and political mainstream. As a result, Jews have achieved unprecedented levels of acceptance, success and integration in America.
But for Jewish communal life, the spirit of freedom has created new challenges. Jewish engagement no longer suffers from external impediments. But at the same time, it is no longer compelled by external – or internal – obligation. In such an atmosphere, it can be tempting to forget the very factors that contributed to Jewish acceptance: a confluence of cultures in constant engagement with one another.
Like so much else in American culture, contemporary Jewish engagement is an individual choice, and in the midst of a multiplicity of cultures, it is a choice that requires active agency. For many, the question boils down to: At a time when American culture has been seeded so thoroughly with Jewish ideas, values and norms, why be Jewish at all? It is the job of the Jewish community to provide these reasons.
One of the most valuable keys to unlocking greater Jewish engagement is the modern state of Israel and its evolving history and culture. The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life supports the development of an innovative and comprehensive platform that engages secular American Jews in authentic Jewish experiences rooted in the revived contemporary life of the Jewish people in the state and land of Israel. In addition, bringing the Hebrew language and Israel to the general population reinforces their importance for America – and, not coincidentally, helps lead Jews who are well-integrated into American life to understand the importance of Hebrew and Israel in ways they might not otherwise appreciate.
We have identified two primary pillars on which to build educational and cultural endeavors that recognize the centrality of Hebrew and Israel in the fabric of Jewish Peoplehood: Modern Hebrew language and extended Israel experiences and internships.
Modern Hebrew Language: Given the growth of the Hebrew Charter School movement and an unprecedented interest among Birthright alumni to learn modern Israeli Hebrew, there is tremendous potential to support the acquiring of Hebrew language fluency among Americans. Speaking, understanding, reading and writing modern Israeli Hebrew is an intimate and personal way for individuals to feel and touch the fabric of life in Israel. With a goal of 24,000 charter school students becoming fluent in Hebrew over the next ten years, the Hebrew charter school movement represents a vanguard for bringing contemporary Hebrew to America.
In addition, the foundation will advocate for the teaching of modern Israeli Hebrew in the contexts of Birthright NEXT, campus life, Jewish summer camps and youth groups.
Eretz Yisrael: Starting with the example of Birthright Excel, the Foundation encourages Birthright Alumni and others to view ongoing and extended trips to Israel as an essential life option. We believe the Excel alumni community can be cultivated as a vanguard for putting forth this value. The Hebrew pillar should also be reinforced through the various extended stay programs.
In sum, this amounts to an expanded sense of Zionism. Zionism should not only be about advocating for Israel and its security on the political plane but should also be about taking the best of contemporary Israeli experience and allowing it to inform the Jewish lives of Americans. Such a framework creates possibilities by which authentic experiences of the modern reality of Israel transform the internal sense of being Jewish wherever Jews are.
In addition to deepening connections to Israel and using Israel as a tool and avenue for Jewish growth, The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life is committed to Jewish engagement in the public sphere. No longer can we conceive of Jewish identity as antithetical to one’s public or civic self. Indeed, in contemporary America, Judaism is best celebrated publicly and without the compulsory segregation prevalent in Jewish history. This is why our philanthropy taps into the great potential of Jewish engagement today: It sees the Jewish People completely at home in America, and it sees America as informed and bettered by the fruits of Jewish civilization. It is a path we walk together, and it has only just begun.