Rabbi Brian Lurie, who recently replaced Naomi Chazan as president of the New Israel Fund, has spent most of his professional life at the heart of the American Jewish establishment. Nonetheless, he is a rebel, a nonconformist, a Jewish communal leader “on the cutting edge,” as former Forward editor J.J. Goldberg puts it, especially in matters relating to the relations between Israel and the Diaspora.
As a young rabbinical student in the Reform Movement, he campaigned for the Hebrew Union College to institute a mandatory full year of studies in Jerusalem. As head of the San Francisco Jewish Federation, he was the first to bypass the Jewish Agency and the United Jewish Appeal, to earmark funds directly for projects in Israel, and to open an independent office in Israel. As national CEO of the UJA (a job he secured after the organization decided that if it can’t beat him, it might as well employ him ), Lurie was also the first to propose that Israel and Diaspora Jewry support efforts to bring tens of thousands of young Jews to Israel, to cement their ties to the Jewish state.
Indeed, the man who has now agreed, at age 70, to head the NIF - an organization depicted by Im Tirtzu and other radical Israeli right-wingers as a mortal enemy of Zionism - is the same man who is one of the “godfathers” of Taglit-Birthright Israel, arguably the most successful Zionist enterprise of our times. And as further proof that Zionist history can have a wicked sense of irony, this is the same Birthright - now funded mainly by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson - which many leftists and other NIF types suspect of serving as an incubator for right-wing indoctrination.
Birthright’s website only notes the “inception” of the project in 2000, and one must presume that it was an immaculate inception, because no mention is made of Lurie and none of Yossi Beilin, who was the driving force in making the idea a reality. Both names have been expunged, Soviet style - perhaps for fear of offending the program’s current benefactors.
Lurie had started sending delegations of Jewish teens to Israel as an assistant rabbi at San Francisco’s Temple Emanu-El. Twenty years later, as executive vice president of the UJA, he formally proposed that a $30 million fund be set up jointly by the Jewish Agency, the Israeli government and Jewish federations that would jointly subsidize an Israel trip for 50,000 young Jews. Lurie presented his plan to Beilin, but the then deputy foreign minister insisted such trips must be completely free of charge for participants.