If Israel truly wants to curb assimilation, it should start by making sure Israeli children receive a true Jewish education and learn to appreciate their Jewish soul.
Every so often, Israelis express their grave concern for the fate of our Jewish brethren in the Diaspora. Surveys that are published announce with great anguish that the future of the Jewish people is in jeopardy. The most recent study about the assimilation among American Jewry broke all records and was discussed at length in the media and at prestigious academic conferences. Everyone who referred to these statistics unanimously agreed that the solution was to promote aliyah, strengthen contact with Israel and teach Zionist values.
This view places complete blame on Jews living abroad – including their rabbis and lay leaders – for perpetuating Jewish Diaspora communities.
Israel blames these communities for establishing and developing a thriving Jewish life. The Israeli government claims that this is what has prevented Diaspora Jews from making aliyah and instead created a Judaism with no national character, which in turn led to assimilation.
Over and over again, Knesset committees are formed, speeches are made, and budgets are allocated.
The latest report from the Diaspora Affairs Ministry announced the allocation of an additional $1.5 billion for projects aimed at the strengthening of American Jewish youth’s connection to Israel.
As a communal rabbi in the US, I have also unfortunately been an unwilling participant in these hypocritical activities. We have joyously welcomed many Jewish Agency and aliyah emissaries into our community, and every few weeks we send a group of members on a mission to Israel.
But I cannot keep quiet anymore.
The time has come for me to put my cards on the table. To my great dismay, the existence of the State of Israel alone is not the solution to assimilation.
And in some ways, Israel is actually one of the factors exacerbating the situation.
A few years ago, a headline in Yediot Aharonot announced that within a 12-month period, 23 Israeli ambassadors and embassy employees around the world had married non-Jews who did not convert at all, and had given their children unmistakably non-Jewish names, like Christian or Christie.
We’re talking about Israeli citizens who were handpicked to represent the State of Israel. These individuals most likely studied for 12 years in the Israeli state school system, served in the IDF and participated in the patriotic courses provided by the Foreign Ministry. In other words, these are the exemplary individuals whose role it is to preserve Diaspora communities’ Jewish connection.
To a certain extent, American Jews have been done a great injustice by the latest survey in which it was reported that intermarriage had risen eight percent. Why was there no mention of the fact that among “yordim” (Israelis living overseas) the rate had tripled within the past 15 years? In communities with small Israeli contingencies, such as Eastern Europe, this rate is even higher.
While attending conferences with other communal rabbis overseas, I’ve agreed with the other participants that the most difficult population segment to include in activities connected with preserving the Jewish faith are graduates of the Israeli school system. Not only do they not understand why marrying non-Jews is a problem, they actually openly boast of “integrating” so well that their son ended up marrying a local girl. They showcase their non-Jewish daughter-in-law as if she were an object of envy among their family members back in Israel. It’s a fact: schools in Israel, which originally were meant to set an example for world Jewry, are now leading the trend in worldwide assimilation.
The only reason that assimilation has not yet had a significant effect on Israeli society is the fact that most Israelis are Jewish and so the chance of meeting and marrying a non-Jew is very low. On the other hand, the probability of the average American Jewish college student finding a Jewish partner to marry is close to zero.
Is anybody actually surprised these days when a graduate of the Israeli educational system forms a relationship with someone outside of the Jewish faith? This is exactly what our kindergartens, lower schools, high schools and universities are aspiring to! We are teaching our children to integrate with other nationalities and to hold equality above all other ideals, since we are all human beings.
We urge them to erase their Jewish soul and essence so as not to set themselves apart. Students are lucky if their teacher believes that serving in the IDF is a positive thing to do.
Although the Education Ministry curriculum includes segments in which children learn about religious traditions, teachers often mock these beliefs and Israel is the only place in the world where a Jewish school is forbidden to teach its students to believe the line from the Book of Genesis, “In six days God created the heavens and the earth.”
In what way is the Israeli educational institution encouraging its students to retain a Jewish identity? All we hear are vague slogans such as “we must pass the memory of the Holocaust on to future generations,” or other empty clichés about Jewish morality, which for the most part have no real connection to the Torah or to Judaism.
This pretense is just outrageous.
Isn’t it obvious that someone who was never taught to value his Jewish soul, his faith or the Jewish traditions would feel no desire to marry a Jew and keep the Jewish dynasty alive? It’s not for nothing that many people in the Diaspora view Israel’s deep concern about assimilation outside of Israel with skepticism.
They are perplexed by the large budgets Israel allocates for the vague goal of “strengthening Jewish national identity in the Diaspora.” Some Americans have even told me that it seems like Israel is not really interested in investing in these children’s Jewish identity, but rather in making sure Americans continue visiting Israel, which is financially beneficial for the Israeli tourism sector.
I blame the Israeli Education Ministry for inventing the idea of Judaism as a culture, which has no logic or future; I blame Israeli cultural institutions for deliberately obscuring our true Jewish identity, values and teachings; I blame Israeli opinion makers for preventing the younger generation of Israeli Jews from learning and experiencing the Judaism their grandparents risked their lives for; and yes, I blame the State of Israel, since as the largest center of Jews in the world, it has done everything in its power to encourage assimilation and erase the beautiful Jewish heritage and identity throughout the world.
I do not, heaven forbid, object to Israel investing in Jewish programming in the Diaspora. I only wish that a small portion of these funds would be earmarked for strengthening traditional Jewish educational youth programs.
Israel should not be ashamed to teach Jewish children about Shabbat, kashrut and the words of the Shema Yisrael prayer.
If the State of Israel is truly interested in curbing assimilation, the only real solution is making a change at the root of how Israel teaches its youth. The Israeli government needs to finally understand that after decades of failing to offer its youth a serious Jewish education, these children are growing up and leaving their homeland and their faith. This could lead – God forbid – to the destruction of the entire Jewish people.
This battle needs to be fought in Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio – and also in Australia, Sweden, Germany and Ukraine. But even more so, it needs to be fought in Ashdod, Rishon Lezion, Haifa and Tel Aviv. Every Jew for whom this issue speaks to his or her heart, needs to stand up and take a stand.
Instead of investing billions of shekels in programs to “strengthen national identity,” Israeli folk-dancing and camel rides in the Negev – these funds should be used to give Jews all over the world – but especially in Israel – a true understanding of Judaism and the Jewish soul.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.
Rabbi Aron Lieberman is a prominent rabbinic figure, rabbi of the Jewish community in Ft. Lauderdale and member of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of Florida.