After years of folks asking: “Should a partnership of philanthropists, Jewish federations and the Israeli government be squandering money sending middle-class and rich kids to Israel when needs were so pressing at Jewish day schools and for various Israeli social service programs?”, blogger Noah Lederman reports on one of the first efforts of young adults taking on Birthright Israel fundaising.
This past Thursday, beneath the section of the High Line yet to be refurbished, Taglit-Birthright Israel alumni gathered for what was the kickoff party to the “I am Birthright Israel” campaign. It was to celebrate ten years of sending Jews aged 18 to 26 to Israel, and to fundraise.
As I passed beneath the shadow of the High Line it felt like the perfect symbol for the state of Jewish philanthropy. That eyesore running through Chelsea was at one point like many Jewish charities after Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme—in serious jeopardy. But those who couldn’t let a landmark die transformed the elevated wasteland into a beautified respite from the city, similar to how a bunch of young Jews—mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, who had traveled to Israel on Birthright—are trying to breathe new life into Jewish fundraising.
Taglit-Birthright Israel was in need of assistance. Although Birthright had never invested with Bernie Madoff, they most certainly felt his impact (check out Business Insider’s list for your favorite Jewish organization burned by Bernie). Not to mention, our crumbling economy isn’t helping. In 2008, Birthright sent 42,000 Jews to the Holy Land, but had to cut that number back to about 25,000 in 2009.
Once I arrived inside the M2 nightclub on 28th street, I watched as the event organizers, most of whom donated months of time to plan this fundraiser, sprinted around in their cocktail attire, clutching envelopes of raffle tickets. (The grand prize: a trip back to Israel). The goal for the campaign is $130,000, just enough to send one busload of Jews to Israel. (You can go to Birthright’s website to watch the windows of the bus graphic change from grey to blue as money trickles in—at the time of posting, the campaign had raised $47,891).
As the congregation swelled to seven hundred, everyone seemed to be enjoying the open bar and the music of past Birthright participant, DJ Gatsby, who played funky grooves and even mashed up forgotten Israeli tunes with modern American pop.
“What do you think this is?” a girl asked me as we stood by the food table. “It’s not crab cakes, is it?”
It did taste like crab cakes.
“It’s definitely not crab cakes,” a guy interrupted. “Do you think they’d serve crab cakes? There are rabbis here.”
Then the organizers spoke. They were so passionate about the project that I was half-expecting one of them to slip in some blame on the villain of the story, Madoff. Were they going to whisper his name like old Jewish ladies mouthing cancer? Or was Madoff the Haman of the 21st Century? Where was my grogger?
But of course they didn’t. It was a celebration. A party with a mission. Ten years of life-changing trips—even alumnus/NASCAR driver, Jon Denning, took to the stage to confirm that and give a little something back.
Some people have doubted alumni gratitude, with accusations of taking the free trip and not giving back, but ten years was a necessary wait for this campaign to launch. Ten years ago, even five years ago, the Birthright alumni were oversexed, party-coveting college kids and entry-level employees, who probably wouldn’t have even been able to cover the cost of the event ticket, let alone pledge money. A fundraising crusade back then would have been as successful as deciding what to do with settlements in the West Bank.
Finally, however, the organizers were all grown up and of age to show their appreciation for the gift once bestowed upon them by bringing in the money. It should be the first of many events. But the benevolence is definitely deficient. Considering that the organization sent around a quarter of a million people to Israel, it’s a shame that only a small percentage of Jews are volunteering now to reel in the funding. (I also am plagued with the same Jewish guilt, but I did buy a few raffle tickets). It seemed, though, that the Jews paying entrance were genuine in their support and good for bit of cash too.
Although $130,000 is a drop in the bucket, this new school of Jewish fundraising has one knack that the older Jewish charities lack. They know how to throw a party.
Non-Jew and Hip Hop star O’Neal McKnight reminded us with his flashy moves on a cross-shaped catwalk that we, as Jews, were not good dancers. (Last week I also had that proven when I got tangoed off the dance floor in Buenos Aires).
Comedian Nick Kroll and former Birthrighter Michelle Collins of VH1’s “Best Weekend Ever” took to the stage too.
“Shut the fuck up,” Collins goodheartedly screamed numerous times as the crowd refused to do so.
“Oh my God,” those that were listening whispered as Kroll and Collins brought up everything from STDs to circumcisions to 9/11. “The rabbis are here.”
No one brought up Madoff though.
It was a night for the new Jews of philanthropy.
Noah Lederman has published a number of articles, some of which have appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle and The Cape Cod Times. Currently he is completing a book of narrative nonfiction, My Grandparents’ Holocaust. Read excerpts at www.mygrandparentsholocaust.blogspot.com.