There have been posts on facebook about an article written recently laying at least some of the “blame” for Max Steinberg’s death on the institution of Birthright. The headline’s subtext states, “A Birthright trip convinced an American with shaky Hebrew that he was ready to die for another country.”
Even before I read the article, I knew that it would upset me.
Condensing the decisions and actions of a person on one factor is infantile. But beyond that, the one statement quoted above has so many problems that I barely know where to start.
1. “A Birthright trip convinced an American”: Birthright is not there to convince anyone of anything. It is meant to expose people to viewpoints and experiences to which they would not otherwise have been exposed. I have had some trips where the participants say that the main Jewish value in their lives is Bagels and Lox! I am not so happy about that, but it is allowed to happen, and sometimes it does.
2. “with shaky Hebrew”: The fact that Max had shaky Hebrew says nothing about the depth of his commitment to this country. Israel was built by people who had shaky Hebrew. Hebrew only returned to usage on a daily basis a little over 100 years ago. Herzl didn’t speak Hebrew. Golda Meir spoke Hebrew with a Midwestern accent. The state of Israel is built on immigrants who have shaky Hebrew. Intel’s chips and cherry tomatoes, as well as much of the cell phone technology, were developed by people who did not speak perfect Hebrew and yet had to get along here and communicate. Think about how many US citizens are being shut out of contributing creatively because of their shaky English.
3. “that he was ready to die”: Maybe Max was ready to die. This is actually part of the statement that I agree with. But before you go getting all crazed with thinking that I am a war-monger, suicide-mission aficionado, let’s look at the flip side.
People who are ready to die, are engaged and willfully living. They are two sides of the same coin. Simple self-preservation with nothing behind it is selfish. It says, “I am the most important idea in the world. I deserve to be alive because I am me.”
Is that why we are alive?
In Judaism, there is the idea of tikkun olam – fixing the world. “For six days you should do all your work.” What work? Tikkun olam. Each of us will see this differently. Whether your life’s work is in charity, or making a better world for our children, or advancing business in order to improve the world, or whatever. Once you know what you are living for, you know in what situations you are willing to die.
So, Max was ready to die, according to this article. If so, he reached a level that many of us don’t reach until we are much older or at all. Self-awareness of what we are doing on this planet and why we are alive is an aspiration.
4. “for another country”: Israel is not just another country. Max got the message that Israel is home. That is a Birthright message. And home isn’t always warm, fuzzy, chocolate cookies all the time. Sometimes home is the “my boyfriend dumped me and I need someplace to be” refuge. Home is when mom hugs you and then yells at you for not washing your dishes. Home is where you need to take out the trash and work at making it liveable. And yet, home is just simply home – that place where you can just be. That is what Israel is for world Jewry.
And when Jews are being killed in Europe, Chana Senesh is coming to parachute in to help you. She won’t give up secrets. She left Israel-home to help her fellow Jews in Europe. And when Jews are hijacked and sitting in an airport in Uganda, the Israeli army is coming to get them out. Yes, your mom would do that for you.
So what did Birthright do for Max Steinberg? What did Max get from his 10-day all-expense paid trip to Israel? Maybe some ideas, maybe a free ticket, maybe a feeling, maybe some friends or mentors. Max Steinberg became Max Steinberg. And I think that instead of searching for somewhere to place the blame for his death, we should celebrate everything that made up his life.
May his memory be a blessing.
I am a Tour Educator who has been guiding Birthright groups for the last 3 years. Max could have been on my trip (but he wasn’t). To date, of the 450 participants on my trips, only 1 has stayed to join the army, but 450 have returned to their lives with a taste of what Israel and being Jewish means to them.