Israeli initiative with Michigan connections promotes education and engagement for young Jews worldwide.
For decades, Israel has relied on generous contributions from Jewish organizations and philanthropists in the diaspora to assist its educational programs, social services and economic development. But the roles have been reversed through Mosaic United, a program established by Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs in 2016 to engage young Jews worldwide.
“This is a historic joint venture partnership with the diaspora to strengthen Jewish identity all around the world and connections to Israel,” explains Rabbi Benjamin Levy, Mosaic United’s chief executive officer based in Australia.
According to the Mosaic United website, this is the first time Israel has invested in the diaspora to build “a thriving, pluralistic worldwide Jewish community that will ensure the future of our people.” The nonprofit organization is a partnership between the Israeli government, Jewish philanthropists and Jewish organizations, including Hillel International, Chabad and Olami.
Mosaic United is a response to research that indicated a growing number of young Jews ages 13-35 are “unengaged or under-engaged” with Judaism, Levy explains. “We are looking for different opportunities to connect them with a first focus on university students.” He points out that this “growing level of apathy and loss of engagement is not exclusive to Jews.”
“It is tremendous to see their excitement and enthusiasm. Through immersive educational experiences, they connect with each other.”
— Rabbi Benjamin Levy
Naftali Bennett, minister of the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, explained the rationale for government involvement in a recently published op/ed: “The greatest danger facing the Jewish world in the 21st century is disengagement: Millions of Jews, mainly in North America, are drifting away from Judaism and, as a result, from Israel …”
Bennett is the Orthodox leader of Israel’s right-wing Jewish Home party, and his initiation of Mosaic United has drawn criticism from some Israelis and Americans. According to an August 2016 Ha’aretz story about the recently announced Mosaic United, critics were concerned the program was a way to expand the ranks of Orthodox Judaism and further limit the role of more liberal streams of Judaism in Israel.
The article claims that Mosaic United’s initial allocations have included funding for 16 Orthodox campus centers. Chabad and Olami are Orthodox organizations; Hillel International is not affiliated with a particular stream of Judaism.
However, Levy says Mosaic United has allocated $66 million, roughly split between Chabad, Hillel and Olami for two years of programming. “They are the three largest providers operating in the campus space that could partner with us,” he says. “Mosaic United seeks out the most effective organizations to partner with, regardless of the denomination. Naftali Bennett’s religious leanings are not relevant to this process,” Levy says.
Each organization provides matching support for the Mosaic United grants. To date, Mosaic United has engaged nearly 400 campuses across all the continents, according to Levy.
“It is tremendous to see their excitement and enthusiasm. Through immersive educational experiences, they connect with each other,” he says.
Prior to assuming leadership of Mosaic United, he was dean of Moriah College in Sydney, Australia, a large Jewish school. He was ordained following study at Yeshivat Har Etzion, an Israeli educational institution that combines traditional Orthodox study with military service.
Hillel International reports it has received $7.3 million in matching funds from Mosaic United during the past two years. The funds have been used “to support programs that strengthen students’ Jewish identity and expand Jewish engagement, education and talent. More than 100 campuses have received funding through Hillel’s partnership with Mosaic United,” says Matthew Berger, vice president, communications, and senior adviser to Hillel International’s Israel Action Program.
Mosaic United funds have been used to start or expand five Hillel programs: Drive to Excellence Innovation grants to involve more students; hiring of senior Jewish educators and rabbis; Springboard Fellowships for training college graduates to engage students; Jewish Learning Fellowships for previously unengaged Jewish students; and internships to connect Jewish students with their peers on campus.
In Michigan, Mosaic United has assisted the University of Michigan Hillel.
“We receive funding through Hillel International’s Drive to Excellence Grants for our engagement and education work,” says Tilly Shames, executive director of U-M Hillel. “This work, funded in part by Mosaic United along with other donors, helps us achieve our goals of reaching out to the thousands of Jewish students that we do, and further enrich their college experiences through deep and meaningful educational content.”
Michigan State University Hillel and Hillel organizations at several other Michigan campuses do not participate in Mosaic United programs.
The Jewish Resource Center in Ann Arbor, which provides outreach and educational programs for Jewish students at U-M, is affiliated with and receives some funding from Olami, a national Orthodox outreach organization. Olami operates on approximately 60 campuses and because it is a Mosaic United partner, the Ann Arbor center is an indirect recipient of Mosaic United funds, according to Rabbi Fully Eisenberger, its director. The center provides one-on-one learning opportunities, Shabbat dinners, a 10-week Maimonides educational program and trips to Israel.
Rabbi Aharon Goldstein, director of Chabad House in Ann Arbor, says their Sinai Scholars program is supported by Chabad International, which is a recipient of Mosaic United funding. He describes Sinai Scholars as “a practical yet engaging way to study Jewish concepts such as Shabbat” that is combined with Shabbat dinners, visits to different synagogues and a shopping trip for kosher food.
Mosaic United generated controversy last year when it posted a proposal on its website seeking a company to develop a database of Jewish college students in the U.S. The stated goal was to communicate with and connect Jewish students with Jewish events on campus. However, Hillel International and others in the U.S. balked at this, stating it was not in the best interest of students to create such a database. The proposal request was subsequently taken down. Levy says, “There was never really an idea behind it.”
According to Hillel’s Berger, Mosaic United requires a student engagement audit to ensure its funds have been used for their intended purpose, which is standard practice.
A Detroit Connection
Mosaic United’s lay leadership includes two members of the Detroit Jewish community — Gary Torgow of Oak Park and Karen Davidson of Bloomfield Hills. Torgow, chair of Chemical Bank, the largest bank headquartered in Michigan, and founder of the Sterling Group, a local real estate, development and investment company, chairs Mosaic United’s four-person steering committee.
Torgow is a trustee of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, senior vice president of the Orthodox Union and president of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah in Southfield. Torgow deferred comments about Mosaic United to its professional and Israeli leadership. Efforts to reach officials at the Ministry of the Diaspora were unsuccessful.
Davidson, a philanthropist and civic leader, also serves on the steering committee. She is a board member of the William Davidson Foundation, serves on the international board of the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel, and the board of Jerusalem University, and is a major supporter of Hadassah Hospital. Speaking of Mosaic United’s goal of energizing young Jewish people throughout the diaspora, she said, “We’re all about uniting all of these groups.”
Levy says, “It is gratifying to see the unity among the providers. We want to promote a message of unity among the Jewish people that will help connect them to their Jewish identity.”
Going forward, he says, “We are exploring an academic exchange for high school students in Israel that is more than short-term and service opportunities primarily for diaspora millennials.”