By Judy Lash Balint/JNS.org
Let’s face it: there are some Israelis who are just larger than life. They’re usually men, most often large men, who just seem to take on challenges and make things happen by dint of the force of their personality.
Shlomo “Momo” Lifshitz is one of those Israelis. This summer Lifshitz, 57, is embarking on yet another phase in his mission to get young Jews from abroad to engage with Israel.
Magen Zion (Zion’s Shield) is the latest in a string of informal Zionist education initiatives that Lifshitz has created.
The idea is to offer high school and college students and young adults (in separate groups) the opportunity to come to Israel for the summer to learn survival techniques, hand-to-hand combat, team development, driving a rescue vehicle, Krav Maga, and firearms training, all under the tutelage of Israel Defense Forces combat soldiers. “I want to teach self defense so they can gain self confidence,” Lifshitz explains.
“Most Israel programs haven’t changed in 40 years,” Lifshitz adds. “I have vision: I’m the future—I know how to make ‘wow!’” he asserts.
It’s with that “wow” that Lifshitz hopes to ignite Jewish identity in Jewish youths whom he says are increasingly estranged. “The No. 1 source for Jewish identity is Israel,” he tells JNS.org.
Lifshitz expects word of mouth and his reputation to attract several hundred to sign up for the 2014 summer inaugural Magen Zion sessions, which will teach participants to define and recognize a threat, protect themselves against personal attack, and survive in difficult conditions. “I want to teach self defense so they can gain self confidence,” he says.
Magen Zion is part of Momo’s LIROM Global Education company, which encompasses several other innovative initiatives.
A language-immersion program offers Arabic, Hebrew, and Farsi summer courses, and a battery of teen study and touring experiences includes tracks in fashion, entrepreneurship, self-defense, and Hebrew language, as well as volunteering to go along with the touring.
If anyone can pull off such an ambitious program, Lifshitz can. He has a list of achievements that have accorded him almost legendary status in Zionist education circles.
For decades, Lifshitz ran Oranim, a tour company he co-founded in the mid-1980s, which he turned into one of the biggest providers for Taglit-Birthright Israel trips.
Lifshitz claims he brought 50,000 young Jews from 22 countries to Israel over the years via Birthright, as well as another 70,000 through his own programs, and established personal relationships with many of the participants. “It’s all personal at the end of the day,” Lisfhitz explains. He made it a policy to personally greet every incoming group at Ben-Gurion Airport with a “welcome home,” and none of his groups left Israel without a final session focused on “vision” and “closure.”
“I wanted them all to feel a sense of belonging, of family, of being part of a chain,” he emphasizes.
For Lifshitz, a secular Israeli who is a licensed teacher and former army officer, the strong message about staying Jewish has always been the crux of his activity.
In 2009, Lifshitz and Birthright parted ways. According to the Jerusalem Post, Lifshitz wrote to supporters at the time, “Due to new rules and regulations within the project, I have been instructed that there were certain things I was simply not allowed to talk about. I cannot continue to allow my messages to be muted.”
Lifshitz said Birthright had prohibited him from using the phrase “raise your children Jewish” or from encouraging aliyah to Israel. His fabled offer of a free Israel honeymoon gift to brides and grooms who had met during their Oranim Birthright trip was canceled.
Today, Lifshitz is committed to independently offering what he calls his “buffet” of programs. “I’m not asking for any government money,” he says, noting that his operation runs “with no big bureaucracy” from his office in Kfar Saba.
Every Birthright group sponsored by Oranim featured a closing “lecture by Momo,” Lifshitz recalls.
“I’m giving you an order,” he would tell the young visitors. “You must remember who you are and where you come from,” he recounts.
Lifshitz says with a broad smile, “I plan on conveying the same message to these groups coming this summer.”
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