In walks Momo. (That’s his name, his nickname and his essence.) Momo, with the gift of gab.
Smiling all the time, yet dead serious.
Confident, not boasting.
With no visible trappings of Jewish religion, yet constantly invoking G-d and the particularity of the Jewish people.
Full of big plans, but not of illusions.
Spending a lot of money, yet not asking for any for himself.
“Global,” that’s his word. He’s going to change “global education.”
He thinks big.
Oh yes, he’s blunt.
The gargantuan sums that Americans spend on higher education?
“Stupid,” he says, though he lowers his voice as if the word will not travel too far and offend.
But if he’s offering the same higher education degree for tens of thousands of dollars less, then what is the person who spends tens of thousands of dollars more?
“ . . . , ” he says.
What are you supposed to do with someone named “Momo” Lifshitz from Kfar Saba, Israel? Something’s up, you know that.
So, Momo marches right into my office and begins to hold forth.
He is entertaining, even as he is serious.
I find myself agreeing, and chuckling.
He makes it sound not scary, not another instance of the “Jerusalem Syndrome” whose sufferers think they’re the Messiah.
His first foray into the forest, the thick forest, of dollars for higher education:
A law degree for $40,000.
Instead of for four or five times that amount.
Because, in Israel, a law degree is an undergraduate degree.
In one fell swoop, he’s saved the entire cost of undergraduate education.
Then’s there’s the law school tuition.
Last time I checked, it was a lot more than $10,000 per year.
That $40,000 — the cost of Mom’s law school — is for four years, not three, because his graduates will come out not only with an LLB, but an LLM, a masters of law. And he or she will be 22.
Here’s the deal: Study in Israel.
The first year, the courses are in English.
The second and third years, they’re half English, half Hebrew.
The final year is at Fordham or Kent, in the United States.
A law degree, and a masters to boot, for $40,000.
This, says Momo, is a major step toward making Israel a global center of education.
Did I forget to mention, his graduates are qualified to take the bar in Israel, California and New York?
His program is called Lirom — Global Education.
He’s got another gig: culinary and hospitality studies in Eilat.
This is more modest, and a lot less expensive. It’s a five-month deal.
Cost: $500. That includes courses, accommodations, medical insurance, three meals a day and an internship.
Money doesn’t grow on trees, so how is all this possible?
It is courtesy of Israel’s Egged bus company. Or of Birthright, depending on how you look at it.
The way Momo tells it, he used to run Birthright tours, 1,201 tours, to be exact; a total of 50,000 kids. He attracted kids. He did it differently. He aroused jealousy. And this:
When the kids got off the plane, he welcomed each one, “Welcome home.”
He got quizzical looks.
Then at some point during the tour he addressed the kids and said, “We’re family. Marry in the family. Marry Jewish. Don’t break the chain.”
That got the “machers” upset, he says, who, he says, told him that Birthright’s job is not to tell the kids anything like this. Let them make up their own minds.
So Momo got out of the Birthright business.
It was a very lucrative business.
“Oranim,” he called it.
Oren is Hebrew for pine. Momo got inspired every time he drove up to Jerusalem and saw the pine trees along the way.
So he named his company after his inspiration. Momo, as I said, is an emotional guy, connected.
So the Egged bus company offered him more than he asked.
He’s got enough to live, and to do what he wants.
He wants to make Israel the center of global education — not just for Jews.
The thing with visionaries is that in their grand vision the individual often gets lost. With Momo, while he tells you about the 50,000 kids he took on Birthright, he also tells you individual stories.
Like the kid who needed a liver transplant, and needed it immediately. Momo tells you how he managed to cut the red tape and make the kid an Israeli citizen in one day. Due to the severity of her condition, she went right to the top of the list. Momo had her on the operating table shortly thereafter.
The kid, so grateful, fulfilled the third and final leg of Mom’s exhortation (first, “welcome”; second, “marry Jewish”): third, “make aliyah, move to Israel.” The girl’s mother and siblings followed her. Another Jew welcomed home.
“I’m not apologetic about aliyah,” says Momo.
Actually, Momo is not apologetic about anything.
There was the Jewish Birthright kid who was so inspired that he wanted to be circumcised. Momo — again, a guy with no apparent Jewish religious trappings, arranged it immediately, the day after the Birthright trip ended.
Anyway, he’s got a third program underway by now: an MA in Jewish education, “for half the time and half the money.”
“Kids leave home to go away to school anyway. So go away to Israel.”
Israel, center of global education.
Momo’s vision exceeds that. He wants to found the “IDF.” Well, the Israel Defense Forces are already founded. He wants to found the “Israel Diplomatic Force.”
Whence this new IDF?
Well, for one, it’s a way of following up on Birthright.
He puts it differently. He wants to found “Zahal” (Hebrew for Israel Defense Forces, Tzva Haganah le-Yisrael). Except he puts it: Tzva Hasbara le-Yisrael, Army for Explaining Israel.
Say you have a big BDS rally on College Campus X.
Call in the IDF, the student Israel Diplomatic Force.
Call it in, in force.
Goodbye, BDS, in that instance, he says.
He has a problem with Birthright — no follow-up, he says. About 25% of the kids on every Birthright bus are absolutely committed to Israel, “commandos,” ready to do anything for Israel, he says.
“Organize those commandos into the ‘IDF.’ Don’t let them go.”
Don’t be afraid to tell them to marry Jewish, to come to Israel and, in the meantime, to defend Israel as part of the “Israel Diplomatic Force.”
Momo sums up: “I want to change history. I need help.
“Not for me.
“I’m asking for scholarships. Not one penny will be taken off the top for administration. If it’s a $5,000 scholarship, $5,000 will go to the student. Not less.”
Momo is creative. On his Birthright gig, he went to the five US military academies (West Point, Air Force, etc.). He put together a bus of cadets and matched them with high-level Israeli officers.
“The American embassy in Israel went crazy. It insisted on seeing the itinerary, down to the last detail. The bus could go to the Western Wall, but not with Israel officers. You know, the Kotel is in ‘occupied territory.’”
Momo wants to bring the same creativity to Lirom — Global Education.
“I don’t take money from the government or the Jewish Agency.”
He does it independently.
His own way.
The way he likes to talk and travel and make things happen.
The way he likes to make fun of himself.
“I’m fat. I have no hair. I wear no kippah. I’m 59-years-young.
“But . . . I have one advantage. Young people like listening to me.”
I like listening to Momo, too.
Rabbi Hillel Goldberg may be reached at [email protected]
Copyright © 2016 by the Intermountain Jewish News