By themselves, efforts to promote Jewish identification through Birthright and similar Israel-experience programs are not enough, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, said on Wednesday.
Such programs have long been touted as a panacea for the problems facing American Jewry, but an increasing number of Jewish leaders, both in the United States and Israel, have begun to assert that without follow-up programs that build on the success of Birthright, a great opportunity is being missed.
“What happens is that Birthright, instead of being seen as a trigger is seen as the end. It is a result of the dumbing down [Jewish identity]. Judaism is antithetical to dumbing down. Its not who we are. We are serious people,” Hartman said. “Birthright is a phenomenal initiative but then it all has to follow.”
Even the way in which Israel is marketed must be changed, he said, pointing to what he termed the “crisis mode” marketing of the Jewish state.
“We’ve been selling Israel as a catastrophe. It’s either a safety net for world Jewry or it’s a catastrophe waiting to happen. Somebody is going to die. Connect to Israel because it’s going to stop somebody from dying,” he said.
“Israel is too successful to market its imminent death and world Jewry is too powerful and successful to market a safety net which they don’t feel they need. There are already two generations who don’t have an explanation why the should care about Israel.”
Pointing to the Shalom Hartman Institute’s iEngage program, which creates education curricula for synagogues, schools and Jewish communities centers across the United States, Hartman said that the formula for ensuring Jewish continuity is “about developing a value- based narrative” both about Israel and about Diaspora Jews’ own communities.
iEngage is now used in “three to four thousands sites across the country,” he said.
“How do we create a conversation where Israel, instead of dividing us, can actually be a place where we can come together and build?” he asked, immediately answering himself, saying that it will not be by speaking about existential threats like Iran.
Values must be at the core of any discussion, he added.
“Sovereignty is not just a place for Jews to protect themselves in a dangerous world. Lets talk about what sovereignty means. What are these notions of homeland and connection to a past and expressing your values in a public sphere that sovereignty enables?” Asked about the popular opinion in Israel that the more you teach Jews in the Diaspora about Israel, the more they will feel connected to their own Judaism, Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, the director of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s North American branch, said that Judaism needs a “narrative and set of values that highly intertwines with your life and your choices and who you are.”
“You need a structure back home. No 10-day trip back here is going to give you a longstanding structure to make the most critical decisions about your life, how you raise your children, what you do.”
Just outside of Hartman’s office, hundreds of rabbis of all denominations are gathering for a summer symposium being run by the Shalom Hartman Institute. Such events, Hartman says, allow for the institute to exert a disproportionate influence on opinion molders within the American Jewish community and to try and steer the direction of public discourse.
Influencing even one rabbi or JCC director, he explained, can have an far-reaching impact on his or her constituents.
“One of the reasons that we work with rabbis is because I know the younger generation doesn’t go to synagogue but we are going to have to get the next generation [through] various Jewish content providers to begin a journey of greater seriousness,” Hartman said. “Birthright made it possible but we have to follow up with those types of initiatives.”
While Birthright follow-up courses are said to be an integral part of the Israeli government’s new initiative to subsidize Jewish identity programs abroad, a large part of the rationale behind the program is still bringing Israel to the Diaspora.
Such an idea, Kurtzer said, is untenable by itself.
“Right now Israel can be an animating force for Jewish life and for wanting to be involved in Judaism, it’s also a divisive force in the Jewish community in the way that our politics pull us apart,” he explained.
“The idea that pushing more Israel on the American Jewish community is automatically going to connect them more to Judaism misses all of the political dynamics in American Jewish life today.”
“ Instead of saying, here are all these crises and how do we stop the flood of everybody leaving and how do we either throw life preservers to the people who are drowning or put walls in the face of the flood that is overtaking you, [try to find] where [there] are things that are actually working in the American Jewish community. Where are Jewish leaders who are earnest and serious and who actually want to be part of a constructive process and what tools and resources can you provide them to thicken the Judaism at their disposal to make a more compelling case? All of this is about Judaism surviving in a marketplace in a way it never has had to compete before. It is not obvious anymore to be Jewish.”
There cannot be Jewish continuity without Jewish content, Hartman said. If Jewish life does not have any special values to add to its adherent’s lives, or what he called a “quality,” then “there is no reason for a particularity” in one’s identity.
If there is something special about Jewish thought that can be shown to American Jewry, then that particularism will thrive and it will not be chauvinistic or racist but uplifting to its adherents.
“We have a great product and just have to find a way to teach, communicate and deliver it,” he said.
“So how do we create various experiences of content? It could be cultural content, ritual content, intellectual content. We have to create a community of excellence. It’s in our ability.”
Part of the solution, is to better use existing institutions and ingrain long term thinking into American Jewry, Hartman said.
Rethinking such time practices as the Hebrew school could be a start, he said.
“Most Jews still go through one and their primary educational vehicle is Hebrew school. We also know that Hebrew school is the only Jewish activity the more of which you do the less Jewish you feel. Everything else is the opposite,” he said. “But because we have an economic system where synagogues are built around the Hebrew school model we know it fails but it keeps our institutions alive so we are keeping our institutions alive in order to fail. That’s just bad.”
It takes courage to look at what we do as a community and reimagine them, he said.
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