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October 24, 2014 / 30 Tishri, 5775
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Atheism vs. Judaism

Atheist Birthright Founder and Rabbi Buchwald to Do Battle

Jewish Outreach founder Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald and Birthright’s co-founder, self-declared atheist Michael Steinhardt have agreed “to wrestle out” their beliefs in a debate.

Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald (L.) and Mr. Michael Steinhardt will wrestle this week.

Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald (L.) and Mr. Michael Steinhardt will wrestle this week.
Photo Credit: Yori Yanover

The “Mother of All Debates” will take place next Tuesday at the National Jewish Outreach Program’s  (NJOP) 25th anniversary dinner next Tuesday at New York’s St. Regis Hotel.

The debate, which features the question of the future of Jewish continuity, will be moderated by renowned lecturer, author and thinker Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.

“We have agreed to disagree on stage, in public… which may be explosive!” said Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald.

“We do not see eye to eye on many issues, but we both have a deep, unshakable belief in and commitment to the future of Jewish continuity. It will be equal parts honor and thrill to share the spotlight with Mr. (Michael) Steinhardt,” he said.

The debaters will address issues ranging from the efficacy of modern-day programs intended to engage Jews, such as Steinhardt’s Birthright and Rabbi Buchwald’s Shabbat Across America, to how the American Jewish community will look 50 years from now.

The audience is restricted to “invitation only” and will include both supporters of Steinhardt and Jewish Outreach and local Jewish community leaders.

“It was with great urgency that we founded NJOP 25 years ago,” Buchwald stated. “The entire unaffiliated American Jewish community was at risk of vanishing. Thank God, we have reached many of them, but the challenges we still face are daunting.“

He established NJOP in 1987 in response to the spiraling losses of Jews from Jewish life due to assimilation and lack of Jewish knowledge.

NJOP sponsors Shabbat Across America/Canada and the Read Hebrew America/Canada campaigns, establishes “Beginners Services” and offers the Turn Friday Night Into Shabbat, Passover Across America and Sukkot Across America programs, Holiday Workshops, as well as free “Crash Courses” in Hebrew Reading, Basic Judaism and Jewish History.

Rabbi Buchwald was a student of Rabbi Dr. JosephB. Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, where he was ordained, and he served from 1973 for 15 years as the Director of Education at Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York.

Newsweek has listed him as on of America’s “top 50 rabbis” the last three years.

Steinhardt made a fortune as a hedge fund manager, financier, investor and newspaper publisher, and he is a philanthropist to Jewish causes.

He has been critical of non-Orthodox Jewish life and has charged that the Reform Judaism and Conservative movements have done “a poor job under-educating our next generations” by failing to distinguish Jewish values from Christian values.

Steinhardt also has asserted that that educators spend too much energy and time on the Holocaust to raise the flag of anti-Semitism in the United States, where he thinks is much less than believed.

The emphasis on the Holocaust and anti-Semitism detracts “from our ability to think about the Jewish future – because it’s hard to be focused intensively on the Holocaust and, at the same time, to think about what we want to accomplish and what we want to be in the 21st Century,” he said in an interview with Shalom TV three years ago.

Steinhardt has defined himself as an atheist but supports Jewish cultural identity.

The Diaspora “is a moribund Jewish world, continuously losing its young people, whose tzedakah has dramatically changed where only a small fraction of total philanthropy is going to Jewish causes; interest in Israel is declining; the number of American Jews going to Israel is not growing; where the culmination of Jewish life seems to be (for the young person) the bar mitzvah – and from there it is all downhill,” he added in the interview.

He founded the Birthright program, which sends young people to Israel for their first visit. Steinhardt has called Israel a “substitute for religion” but mourns the atmosphere in Israel, claiming it often is “easier to be a Zionist in Manhattan that in Tel Aviv.

However, he added, “I could forgive almost anything vis-à-vis Israel. Israel was and still is my Jewish miracle!”

His autobiography, “No Bull: My Life in and out of Markets,” notes his father, Sol Frank Steinhardt, who also was known as “Red McGee.”

“Red” Steinhardt was convicted in 1958 on two counts of buying and selling stolen jewelry, and was sentenced to serve two 5-to-10 year terms.

About the Author: Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu is a graduate in journalism and economics from The George Washington University. He has worked as a cub reporter in rural Virginia and as senior copy editor for major Canadian metropolitan dailies. Tzvi wrote for Arutz Sheva for several years before joining the Jewish Press.


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2 Responses to “Atheist Birthright Founder and Rabbi Buchwald to Do Battle”

  1. Josh Karpf says:

    Steinhardt's promotion of religiosity — including bribing, with free trips to zionist Israel, young people to practice Judaism — is anything but skeptical or secular. How is he more good for atheists than Clarence Thomas is for people of color?

  2. Dan Silagi says:

    Both Birthright and Shabbat Across America have the same ultimate goal, whether or not explicitly stated: To eliminate intermarriage. On the other hand, the best argument in favor of intermarriage is a former co-worker of Josh Karpf's employer; in fact, he co-founded the company. The products of his marrying out are legendary; one especially.

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