Zionism is alive and well – and getting younger every day

That lost generation everyone is bemoaning, whom Jewish organizations perpetually have a difficult time attracting – I found them.

April 23, 2010 16:50
Theodor Herzl leaning over the balcony of the Hote

Theodor Herzl leaning 311. (photo credit: E.M. Lilien)

Good news. I found them. That lost generation everyone is always bemoaning, those between the ages of 25 and 40 whom Jewish organizations perpetually have such a difficult time attracting to their ranks. The reasons for their absence are many and real. They’re starting families, developing careers, taking a respite after years of involvement in youth movements and campus activism, and wandering into other pastures. And if sociologists’ predictions are to be taken seriously, many of them will never return. Well, with a nod to Mark Twain, I can happily report that rumors of their demise are a bit premature.

Ten months ago I started planning a journey in Herzl’s footsteps in honor of his 150th birthday, and began looking for people to accompany me. I expected a few veteran devotees of Israel’s founding father to rally ‘round the cause. I never expected to be bombarded by applications from those in their 20s and 30s, but that is precisely what happened. The group of 120 currently on tour includes 70 from the Next Generation. What made them decide to spend a considerable sum of money and take valuable time off from work to participate in a weeklong whirlwind sweep of Paris, Basel, Vienna, Budapest and Jerusalem?

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“This is the trip when I’m going to decide whether or not I’m making aliya,” answers Deborah Benson, an activist with Dor Hemshech in Chicago, the young leadership forum of the American Zionist Movement. “This is my fifth trip to Israel in four years. It’s time to choose between the comfortable life I have, a job that I love, a career which is taking off – all that on the one hand, and, on the other, the soul connection I have with Israel.”

Not everyone on the trip is on the verge of making such a dramatic decision, but they are all engaged in a conscious process of defining Zionism for themselves and contemplating what it demands of them. “We’ve launched a campaign called “Reclaiming Zionism – What’s Yours?” explains Becky Adelberg, the group’s coordinator, who was responsible for bringing together the 11 participants from Chicago. “We’re interviewing people and uploading the responses on YouTube. We expect to have tens of thousands of young people from around the world sharing their answers, kind of a collective determination of the meaning of Zionism today. That’s what’s brought people on this journey. They want to be part of something bigger, something with more meaning.”

Is it working? “Absolutely. Hearing views from people around the world – Europe, South America, the States – it’s really intriguing. We’re all challenging each other and its so eye-opening, seeing things all of a sudden from other vantage points. People are really thinking about these questions in new ways.”

Rumi Zonder-Kislev agrees wholeheartedly. One of a contingent of nine from the Israel Leadership Institute (ILI) in Sderot, she elaborates. “In this exercise we did the other night, we had to map out our identities. You know, what comes first: Israeli, Jewish, woman, human being? It was obvious for me in the beginning to say Israeli, but by the end of the evening I changed to ‘Jewish.’ I think everybody is looking at themselves differently as a result of this trip.”

IN EUROPE it took a Holocaust for many people to arrive at this conclusion. “Now it’s the interaction with others that’s making us change the way we see ourselves. It’s so much more positive,” says Zonder-Kislev, who adds two additional reasons for having come along in the first place. “To be a leader you have to have one foot in the present and one foot in the future,” she says. “That’s what they’ve taught us at ILI. You’ve got to be thinking about how to solve problems that haven’t yet arisen. Herzl is the perfect example of this. I came to get to know him better, and to explore what Zionism means today. Herzl didn’t say everyone had to make aliya. Ben-Gurion did. I’m trying to find an answer for myself, and meeting with others from around the world is really helping. I’m coming away with new understandings of the importance of Jewish life in the Diaspora. I still think it makes sense for people to live at home, especially if you have a warm home that wants you, but I’ve gained a new appreciation for why it’s also important that there be strong Jewish communities abroad.”

Ruth Ouazana has already made an impressive contribution to strengthening them. A young Jewish leader on the journey from Paris, she is the founder of Limoud France, an organization celebrating Jewish learning. For her, this trip is part of a longer journey. Unlike the other participants, who are returning to their home countries this week, Ruth is staying on for a year to participate in the prestigious Jerusalem Fellows program dedicated to cultivating outstanding Diaspora educators. “I’m here to review Herzl’s vision together with young Israelis and others from around the world. The interaction between us is so enriching,” she says. “We’re all hearing views we’d normally never be exposed to. Our perspectives are changing. We’re asking the same questions Herzl did, but coming up with our own answers, rearranging things in a way that makes sense for us today. We’re all concerned with unifying the Jewish people, but that means something else now than it did in Herzl’s time.”

Halfway across the globe, Hillel Zomer, a young attorney from Costa Rica, would agree. “In some ways,” he says, “my life is the same as Herzl’s. I’m completely comfortable where I live. My grandparents arrived as penniless Holocaust refugees, but my father went on to become a doctor, my mother a professor. But this is the scary part. I don’t think there is any future for the Jewish community there in the long-term. I want my children to be Jewish and the reality is that the only place that I can be sure that that is going to happen is in Israel.”

For Nir Rubin Syrkin, Jewish survival is important, but in and of itself, insufficient. An Israeli and leader of the Mahaneh Olim youth movement, he is passionately devoted to Herzl’s conception of Zionism that entails not only the establishment of a Jewish state, “but also the yearning for ethical and spiritual fulfillment.” He believes that “we’ve got to identify the dilemmas we’re facing, be inspired by Herzl’s vision of an exemplary society, and figure out how to move forward. That’s why I’m here, and to convey this message of the Zionist youth movements to the Next Generation of Jews from abroad. It’s important they understand that this is what Zionism is all about.”

It’s important that the rest of us understand this as well – and the reason why this journey in Herzl’s footsteps has been so important. Being together with these representatives of the younger generation for several days has been an uplifting experience and one that has stimulated all of its participants to rededicate themselves to the loftiest ideals of the Zionist movement.

With the 36th Zionist Congress set to take place in just another few weeks, it must also be a reminder to the 2,700 attendees that the World Zionist Organization still has a great deal to do. First and foremost, to make room for those of the Next Generation who insist on continuing to call themselves Zionists.

These are Herzl’s true heirs, those who keep dreaming the Zionist dream, even as they reshape it. If we are not able to do this, we will quickly discover that after having found them, we have lost them.

The writer is a member of the Zionist Executive.

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