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entries tagged with: Birthright Israel


Birthright: A tonic for the Jewish world

Leonard A. ColeOp-Ed
Published: 30 October 2009

Non-Orthodox day schools are no ‘shandah’


New Jersey, Israel lose a hero

Steve Averbach was surrounded by his extended family on a 2006 visit to the area to raise funds for child victims of terror. Jeanette Friedman

Steve Averbach was Israel’s fearless man of steel.

While his brave act in 2003 saved dozens of lives — leaving him paralyzed from the neck down, a prisoner in his own body — the then 37-year-old father of four did not become embittered and never allowed his condition to prevent him from living a meaningful life.

The New Jersey native died in his sleep two weeks ago at age 44, a result of complications from his paralysis, but not before inspiring hundreds around the world.

Averbach was riding the Egged No. 6 in Jerusalem on May 18, 2003, when a Palestinian terrorist disguised as an ultra-Orthodox Jew boarded the bus near French Hill. As a gun instructor, police officer, and former Golani soldier, Averbach was trained to scan crowds for suspicious people.

He noted the man’s clean-shaven face and tell-tale bulge of explosives, and instantly reached for his weapon. His act scared the terrorist into detonating himself prematurely, saving untold lives. He blew up a near-empty bus instead of waiting for the downtown crowds. Hamas took responsibility for the attack.

Averbach’s severely wounded body was found in the wreckage. Glass had punctured his lungs, and a steel ball bearing tore into his spine. His hand was still on the trigger of his gun. He was barely conscious, but he mustered enough strength to inform the police about the bullet in his gun. He didn’t want anyone to get hurt.

An investigation confirmed that the bomber had planned an explosion in the center of town. Averbach had prevented dozens of deaths and was given a government award for bravery.

His heroism earned him fans the world over. He received letters and visitors from France, Australia, and North Carolina. Actor Christopher Reeve visited Averbach as he was recovering at Sheba Medical Center to talk to him about stem cell research.

But Averbach’s exhibition of courage wasn’t over.

The soldier and gun instructor, whose prowess with weapons won him the nickname “Guns,” now remained confined to a wheelchair, unable even to scratch his own nose. Nevertheless, the father of four insisted on living without regrets.

“If I had to, I would do it all again,” he told friends and family of his split-second choice to pull his gun on the terrorist rather than flee to safety. “It was required of me…. If I wouldn’t have done anything, I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself.”

He admitted in an interview with this reporter in 2004 that he missed playing Frisbee with his four sons, taking them to the beach, and teaching them to ride a bike. And yet, as his aide held a straw to his mouth so he could sip a drink, he asserted, “I made a choice. My choice was the correct one, so I can live with the outcome.”

Averbach was not content to spend the rest of his life as a quiet spectator in his wheelchair. He spoke to crowds from Bar Ilan University, Young Judea, Birthright Israel, and at Jewish centers and synagogues throughout America. He talked about making a difference in the world through Zionism, and what it meant to sacrifice for the Jewish people.

He made an impact on everyone he met, said his sister, Eileen Sapadin, of Englewood. “He was very much alive. Whatever he had left to give, he gave. He talked to everyone, and they were changed from the experience.”

Averbach saw beyond his personal suffering and wanted to do something to help those Israelis whose lives were shattered by terrorist attacks. Although traveling was difficult for him, he opted to raise funds by speaking to groups throughout the world. In this way, he raised thousands of dollars for Tikvot, an Israeli non-profit organization that helps rehabilitate terror victims and their families through sports activities. Averbach was appointed the organization’s vice president.

Sapadin’s husband, Allen Sapadin, a Hackensack dermatologist, said he was not shocked by Averbach’s bravery on the bus in 2003. But, he said, he was amazed and awed by Averbach’s courage every day since he became a quadriplegic.

“Even with his suffering, he said he would do it all again and meant it,” he said. “He never expressed anger or bitterness about his situation. He felt his job was to protect Israel. That’s something he would never have relinquished. That’s how dedicated he was to Israel.”

His wife added, “He suffered quietly. He didn’t complain.” After the attack, he didn’t describe himself as a victim of terror but as a survivor of terror.

Even before Averbach boarded Bus No. 6, he was leading an exemplary life, Eileen said. “He made aliyah by himself when he was just a teenager. He joined the army, and not just any unit but the most elite unit. He trained experts to fight terrorism. He had such a love for Israel. He wanted people to understand how important it was to support Israel. He wanted people to be educated about their duty to defend themselves.”

Averbach grew up in West Long Branch, N.J., the son of a surgeon and a nurse. He was a restless teenager who was popular among his classmates at Hillel Yeshiva in Ocean Township. He visited Israel in 1982 at age 16 and instantly fell in love with the country. “He felt at home there,” said his mother, Maida Averbach, a nurse in Long Branch. “Once he went to Israel, he felt he had to live there. He told me, ‘These are my people.’”

Although he didn’t know any Hebrew at the time, the moment he got off the plane he realized Israel was different from anyplace else and wanted to stay. “The love for the country fell right over me,” he told a newspaper reporter years later.

He made aliyah at age 18 and joined the elite Golani unit of the IDF, fighting in Lebanon and Gaza. He later worked in the Jerusalem Police Department’s anti-terrorist unit and as an instructor at a school that trains police officers and security firms.

“He was brave,” Maida Averbach said. “He didn’t like his situation, but he was brave. He dealt with it the best he could. And he helped other terror victims, too. He rose to the occasion. He inspired people. We heard from people who said he saved their lives because he taught them how to defend themselves. We heard from people who said they made aliyah because of how he felt about Israel. To me, he was a patriot.”

Over 300 mourners accompanied Averbach to his final resting place in Jerusalem’s Har Menuchot. Among them were members of the Israel Police, IDF, people whose lives he saved, and friends and admirers from all walks of life.

He is survived by his wife, Julie; his four sons; his sister Eileen and brother-in-law Allen of Englewood; Michael Averbach of Eatontown; and his parents Maida and Dr. David Averbach of West Long Branch.


Listen and learn

Young Jews speak their minds at Jewish Standard rap session

From left, Ben Prawer, Shir Michael, Maayan Weiss, and Nis Frome discuss their views on being Jewish. Photos by Joff Jones

What would you change about the Jewish world? Is it important to marry someone Jewish? What issues face young American Jews today? Seven college students, including myself, discussed these questions at The Jewish Standard’s first annual Teen Rap Session, held at the Glen Rock Jewish Center on Aug. 10.

While the students represented a wide range of opinions, they all said they care deeply about the issues and feel connected to the Jewish community. Still — as one participant suggested — the opinions held by college-age Jews often are unsolicited, or ignored, as the community engages in long-term planning.

The Standard hopes to correct that oversight by convening these students on a regular basis.

This year’s panel participants, ranging from 18 to 20 years old and hailing from both Bergen and Passaic counties, included Michael Cohen (Wayne); Ruben Waldman (Teaneck); and Ben Prawer, Shir Michael, and Nina Follman (Glen Rock). Also from Glen Rock, I led the discussion with my fellow Standard intern Nis Frome of Teaneck.

Jewish identity

Students were asked whether it is important to marry someone Jewish.

“This is something that I’ve been battling with for a long time,” said Prawer, “and I think I’m leaning towards marrying Jewish. I don’t think it’s because I care if my spouse believes in God; I just don’t think I’d feel comfortable raising my kids anything but Jewish.”

He explained that his personal connection to Jewish culture is something he would want his children to experience as well.

For Waldman, “It’s very important to marry someone Jewish, just because I think it’s important to preserve my heritage, my culture, and my traditions as a Jew. For that reason,” he said, “I would only be comfortable raising my kids Jewish if I knew that I had a Jewish spouse to raise them with.”

“I don’t think you have to marry someone Jewish, necessarily,” Shir Michael countered. “I think its more about the person wanting to understand the culture, learn the culture, and if they’re willing to do that, then I think its acceptable to marry someone who isn’t Jewish,” she said.

Cohen agreed, adding that it was “more of a cultural thing than a religious thing. To me, being Jewish is about celebrating the holidays, coming together as a family … and in order to preserve that, I think it’s easier to ‘keep it in the faith.’”

All agreed that Jewish culture is something they want to preserve in their future family lives, and that more often than not, it’s easier to form an instant bond with other Jews than with people of other groups.

The Israel connection

Of the seven forum participants, six have traveled to Israel on more than one occasion. They discussed family trips, Birthright Israel opportunities, and what it means to feel a connection to Israel.

Cohen, who was born in Israel and lived there until he was 11, said that Israel would always be a “second home” to him. And Waldman, who has visited Israel many times, said, “Anytime I have the opportunity, I just jump on that plane and go.”

“I didn’t really understand this whole ‘homeland’ talk,” Prawer admitted, but when he got the chance go on a Birthright trip, he made his own discovery, he said. He noted that “in a country just about the size of New Jersey,” he and many others from his group saw people they knew just walking down the street.

“That could never happen with any other religion, in any other country — it will only happen to Jews, in Israel,” he said, “and that was just something so special and fascinating to me that I really felt a connection when I went.”

Follman said that she had not yet been to Israel, but she has heard so many positive stories about her friends’ experiences there that she hopes to go on Birthright soon.

Following the news

All the participants shared an interest in Israeli politics and a desire to keep up with news of the region.

Cohen suggested that what is best for Israel is also what is best for Jews living in America.

He acknowledged that although Israel should be a top priority, America does have other concerns it has to deal with.

“Many Americans need to realize that Israel is America’s only ally in the Middle East, and that we can’t lose that connection,” he said. “Jews are a big part of American politics and American life, so I think America really needs to build upon that relationship.”

Michael said that she “always believed the connection between America and Israel hasn’t been strong enough” and that the reason Jewish American teens in particular may not be as involved is because “no one is teaching them how to connect with Israel.” In order to bridge this divide, she suggested that teens, and even children, should be more exposed to everyday life in Israel.

Aside from its relationship to America, Israel often features in the media spotlight. “Every once in a while I’ll check on or The Jerusalem Post just to get a more informed notion,” Waldman said. “I think there’s a definite problem with at least American and European media in showing both sides of the story, with issues pertaining to Israel.”

“Surprisingly,” he added, “I’ve read more than a few articles from Israeli news sources that don’t paint Israel in a flattering way.”

In response to those who claim that American Jews “blindly support” Israel, he said that Israel “isn’t infallible” and that it, too, can make mistakes. Still, he added, it’s important to support it in all the good that it accomplishes, “and it does a lot of good.”

Many people try to gain a fuller understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict from the news, but “people have to be careful where they get their news from,” Cohen said. “Unfortunately, the media is not pure facts.”

“A lot of people are really pro-Israel,” Prawer said, speaking of his family and members of the Jewish community at his school. But, he added, there are also a lot of people who are firmly anti-Israel at his school.

“I wish I had a better picture of the whole story,” he added. Before he left on his Birthright trip, a goal of his was to learn as much as he could about the regional conflict. However, describing himself as very “sheltered,” he said he regretted that he wasn’t able to do so.

Responding to anti-Semitism

One issue that strongly resonated with the students was anti-Semitism, a topic they introduced themselves during the discussion.

“Hearing words that weren’t around me when I was younger,” Michael said of her first year on campus, was something that was “very difficult to adjust to.”

Cohen recalled Israeli Apartheid Week — a politically charged event held at Boston University last year. He said it made him feel uncomfortable, mostly because it was partially funded by the university itself, and, by extension, his own undergraduate fees.

At the same time, said another participant, a college campus is unique in that it can, in an educational way, present numerous viewpoints, beliefs, and opinions.

“It’s healthy to have the debate,” Prawer said. “I think it’s really important to have a lot of different views [on campus]…. I would feel uncomfortable,” he added, “if it was all pro-Israel.”

Sense of community

The participants spoke about their involvement in the Jewish community, both as children and young adults.

One of the biggest differences Cohen noticed when he moved to the United States was the way he and his family expressed their Judaism.

“In Israel, Judaism is all around you,” he said. He didn’t go to synagogue services, for example, because he didn’t feel the need.

“But when I moved here,” he explained, “I realized that I had to seek out Judaism.”

“I think it really depends on where you are in the country,” Prawer added, “and what type of institution you’re in…. Once I got to college there was a lot more outreach.”

As the two participants who are only just entering college, Follman and Waldman explained how the Jewish community played a role in their college decision-making process.

Waldman was impressed with the outreach on his campus when he visited the University of Pennsylvania.

“I would definitely love to be a part of that,” he said. “I think Hillel and organizations like it are a great way for Jews on campus to be in touch, and I definitely see myself taking a role in that.”

Follman was also impressed by the Jewish community at her future campus, but explained that her involvement won’t change just because there is an active Hillel.

“It was definitely part of my decision to choose Boston University, because it had such a strong Jewish presence,” she added. “It’s just really great to be with all other people that ‘get’ you.”

Being Jewish

What do they love most about being Jewish?

“The food!” Prawer exclaimed, as the others agreed enthusiastically.

“The culture, coming together with the family for Rosh HaShanah, having a big dinner, and celebrating each other,” Cohen added, “It’s a lot about the family.”

“You can find a Jew anywhere, pretty much, and just be able to talk to them, and be able to connect to them immediately…. That’s really my favorite part,” Waldman said.

Being able to stand out as a minority is one of Follman’s favorite aspects about being Jewish.

“We’re not only a minority,” Prawer reminded everyone. “We’re a minority that has had a disproportionate amount of success in the world.”

“We’re a minority with a large presence,” Cohen added.

On the flip side, Michael pointed out that sometimes it’s difficult for her to deal with people who do not understand Judaism.

“Some other people don’t understand the culture, and they judge it very quickly,” she said.

Cohen also acknowledged “preconceived notions about Jews and the Jewish religion,” but said that if anything, these judgments and perceptions were just something he’d like to educate others about, showing them “what the Jewish religion is all about.”

On changing the Jewish world

“One thing I’d like to see is a little more dialogue,” Waldman said. “I think the Jewish community is suffering from some real fragmentation…. There are a lot of issues in the news, inter-Jewish issues about all kinds of things, and just to get everybody to sit down and talk would be beneficial to everybody.”

Cohen agreed, adding that he thinks that in order to move forward, “We need to learn how to be one.”

“I wish there was a general understanding that you can ‘be Jewish’ without ‘being Jewish,’” Prawer said. He stressed the importance of embracing Jewish traditions in one’s own way. “There’s such a rich culture that I think everyone can benefit from, and appreciate, and you don’t necessarily need to follow all of the rules or believe everything the religion says you should believe in.”

Following the discussion, members agreed — in Michael’s words — that “everyone has something different to say, and sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree, but in the end, just to have the conversation is important.”

“I think I gained a reassurance from this,” said Cohen. While “others have the same views as me, and some others don’t … we are still connected, and share very similar beliefs.”

A full video presentation of the forum, in 6 parts, can be found on our website.

First Annual Jewish Teen Rap Session, Part 1

First Annual Jewish Teen Rap Session, Part 2

First Annual Jewish Teen Rap Session, Part 3

First Annual Jewish Teen Rap Session, Part 4

First Annual Jewish Teen Rap Session, Part 5

First Annual Jewish Teen Rap Session, Part 6

Shir Michael, top left, Nis Frome, and Ruben Waldman. Ben Prawer, bottom left, Maayan Weiss, Michael Cohen, and Nina Follman.

Ari Sapin gives ‘gift of life’ with bone marrow donation to leukemia patient

Thanks to a bone marrow donation from 21-year-old River Edge resident Ari Sapin, a 29-year-old man suffering from leukemia has a new hope of survival.

Sapin, a senior at Rutgers, does not know the identity or nationality of the recipient. All he knows is that a tissue sample he provided to the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation came up as an exact match for this gravely ill patient.

The donation took place during Sapin’s Birthright Israel tour in January. “On the trip, we heard from a representative from the Gift of Life, an organization that adds donors to a worldwide patient registry so that bone marrow recipients can find matches more efficiently and quickly,” he said. “Everyone on the trip gave a cheek swab to be put into the system and they said if we were ever a potential match we would get a call and have the option to go through with the entire process or not. I didn’t think anything of it because I knew people that have been on the list for decades and have never gotten a call.”

Just six months later, a representative of Gift of Life informed Sapin that he was a potential match.

“I decided to go through with the process,” Sapin related. “I was shocked by the call coming so soon, but I knew 100 percent that I was going to go through with it.”

Ari Sapin is attached to the transfusion apparatus during a process called apheresis. Courtesy Joy Sapin

After talking over his decision with his parents, Marc and Joy Sapin, he underwent a battery of blood work to confirm that his blood and tissue were compatible with the recipient’s. After this was confirmed, he was given an appointment at Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan for a complete physical. By late September, all the preliminary testing was done and he was deemed ready to proceed.

“In the past, there has only been one type of bone marrow transplant, which requires the doctors to take the bone marrow from the hip bone,” he explained. “Recently, there has been a different procedure that some doctors are requesting called peripheral blood stem cells (PBSC). It is entirely up to the patient’s doctors which procedure they think will provide better results for their patient. My recipient’s doctors requested a PBSC donation.”

A nurse come to inject Sapin with a drug called Filgrastim for five days to raise his stem cell count. On Oct. 19, he went to Cornell for apheresis, where whole blood is drawn from one arm, the desired components are separated out, and the remaining fluids are transfused back through the other arm. This technique is most frequently used to collect platelets from blood donors.

“I have donated blood before, but I had never done apheresis,” said Sapin, who was already feeling a bit achy as a side effect of the Filgrastim. “I was attached [to the transfusion apparatus] for six hours.” Though it was a bit tiring and uncomfortable, this procedure is much less invasive than the hip bone aspiration normally used for marrow donations — and, as Sapin pointed out, “what I went through can’t compare to what the recipient is going through.”

Accompanied by his mother, Sapin was approached by a recent marrow recipient who was there at the same time. He told the Sapins that his own brother had saved his life through this same procedure. “It was one of the best feelings I ever got, having that man tell me I was doing a wonderful thing. To be able to save someone’s life, even indirectly, is truly amazing.”

In another year, if the recipient agrees, Sapin will be permitted to find out his identity. In the meantime, “Gift of Life will track his status and let me know how he’s doing.”

The cell biology and neuroscience major is busy applying to medical schools but when time permits he would like to try to get many more people to join the registry. He is considering organizing a drive at college, and his younger sister may do one as a project for her upcoming bat mitzvah at the Jewish Community Center of Paramus.

In 2004, another Rutgers senior, Teaneck native Ilana Polack, donated bone marrow as a result of a Gift of Life recruitment drive on the Rutgers campus. Her husband, Rutgers graduate David Adams, gave a PBSC donation in August 2008 that saved the life of a 64-year-old man.

To date, the Gift of Life public bone marrow, blood stem cell, and umbilical cord blood registry has 174,241 registered donors, has made 7,096 matches, and facilitated 2,160 transplants. The registry was founded in 1991 to identify a lifesaving match for West Orange resident Jay Feinberg and was the first registry in the world to recruit donors online via its website,


Major funding boost for Birthright from Israeli gov’t

Boosters of Birthright Israel are hoping that the Israeli government’s decision to more than double its investment in the popular free 10-day trips for young diaspora Jews will yield dramatic results.

But their hopes could be short-lived if Jewish philanthropists fail to ramp up their own contributions to the tune of some $222 million over the next three years.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced last week that his government would provide $100 million in financing to Birthright Israel from 2011 to 2013.

The funding, which will rise over the three-year period from $26 million this year to $40 million by 2013, is aimed at increasing the number of Birthright participants to 51,000 annually by 2013. Last year, 30,000 diaspora Jews went on the program.

“It’s a historic decision which is going to revolutionize the relationships of young Jews to the State of Israel,” said Gidi Mark, the CEO of Taglit-Birthright Israel. “It’s going to bring, for the first time ever, the majority of young Jews to Israel.”

That prediction will hold true only if Jewish philanthropists, who now fund about half the Birthright budget, increase their investment.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announcing $100 million in Israeli government funding for Birthright Israel at a Jan. 6 event in Jerusalem. Birthright

While the program brings tens of thousands of 18- to 26-year-old diaspora Jews to Israel each year, spots are available now for only about half who apply.

About a decade old, Birthright Israel was envisioned as a more or less equal partnership between the Israeli government, the Jewish federation system, and private philanthropists, with each providing about a third of the budget.

But the federation share of funding has remained low. In 2010, federations provided only about $6 million of Birthright’s $76 million budget, according to Birthright officials. That has increased pressure on the Israeli government and donors to make up the difference.

The Birthright Israel Foundation, the charitable organization that helps fund the program, raised $49 million for Birthright in 2010. The budget for 2011 is projected at $87 million. By 2013, it will be $126 million, Birthright officials said.

Robert Aronson, the president of the foundation, said there is no question that the Israeli government will reduce its giving if the foundation fails to raise the balance needed to bring significantly more diaspora Jews to Israel over the next three years. It’ll take another $222 million over three years, he estimates.

“We have our work cut out for us,” Aronson said.

A major U.S. fund-raising push under way is targeting Birthright alumni, as well as their parents and grandparents, in an effort to expand the foundation’s financial base well beyond the core group of major philanthropists that helped launch the organization.

Birthright has been sustained recently in large part by a $100 million gift from gaming magnate Sheldon Adelson, as well as continuing support from founding philanthropists Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman. But in the decade since its founding, the donor base has expanded to more than 13,000.

Aronson says it is most important to ask parents and grandparents for contributions, as they care about Birthright because they can see its effect.

Hailed as one of the most successful Jewish identity projects in recent memory, Birthright Israel has brought more than 250,000 young Jews to Israel since its inception in 2000. Based on data showing that an Israel trip was among the most effective contributors to Jewish identity formation, Birthright aimed to counter trends showing declining connection to Israel and weaker Jewish identification among young diaspora Jews.

In 2009, a Birthright-funded study by Brandeis University found that participants in the program were 57 percent more likely to marry other Jews and 30 percent more likely to view raising Jewish children as “very important.”

As Birthright’s numbers grow, the level of Jewish engagement of participants tends to decline, which could dilute that largely rosy picture. But Len Saxe, the Brandeis professor who directed the 2009 study, said further research shows that the impact of Birthright doesn’t change even if the participants come from less Jewishly engaged backgrounds.

“It really doesn’t matter exactly what the mix is,” Saxe told JTA. “You still have the Birthright effect.”

Expanding the range of that effect now depends in large measure on how much money Aronson and his staff can wring from the pockets of American Jews, a task sure to be complicated by a still uncertain economic climate.

“It’s going to take a lot of hard work, a lot of effort,” Aronson said. “When I see the results of Birthright Israel, and the product in effect that we create for our young people, I am very optimistic that the American Jewish community will respond.”

JTA Wire Service


Don’t believe gloomy forecasts on Conservative Judaism


The power of Birthright

Published: 29 July 2011
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