Answering the call for American-Jewish Israel support

American Jewry’s relationship with Israel is at a crossroads where support cannot be taken for granted; to counter this looming threat is Jewish National Fund’s Israel Continuum.

By DAVID BRUMMER
May 2, 2018 20:06
Students on campus at Alexander Muss High School in Israel

Students on campus at Alexander Muss High School in Israel. (photo credit: JNF)

 
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The nature of American-Jewish support for Israel is changing rapidly, and it is almost impossible now for younger generations to comprehend the precariousness of Israel’s existence in the early years of the state.

That disconnect toward Israel between the younger generations and their parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents, is a potentially catastrophic fissure.

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Jewish National Fund (JNF-USA) has understood this and has further developed its Israel Continuum to provide support for young American Jews to engage with Israel from a young age and provide age-appropriate opportunities to maintain and further that connection.

Jewish National Fund’s Israel Advocacy & Education department systematically engages the full age range from kindergarten to college,” said Robert B. Levine, JNF Vice President of Education. “We call this the ‘Continuum.’ From putting a coin in a Blue Box, to attending Alexander Muss, to participating in Alternative Break, there is an engagement opportunity with JNF for virtually every grade.”

JNF has been in this business for over 100 years. It is this strategic path of engagement spanning from childhood through adulthood that provides a cohesive, successful structure as opposed to isolated programming. And this structure doesn’t just have an impact on the participants; it has a radiating effect on other family members who become more involved with Israel and its story. Community engagement, which includes connecting children and adults in schools and synagogues across the country, is key. JNF realizes that trying to capture students’ imaginations regarding Israel once they are already in high school or college is simply too late – their opinions have likely formed and they often lack the necessary time. So they provide a series of programs for children beginning as early as pre-school.

A new online activity platform for first through third grade, My Israel Tree, has recently been field-tested in five schools. If it proves successful, it will be rolled out to all schools by next year. In addition, JNF launched its newest society, the Sababa Society, at its National Conference in Florida in November, for kids aged 11-14. The society is designed to teach tweens and teens about the importance of philanthropy, requesting of its participants that they raise $2 a week. This age bracket also encompasses a Bnai Mitzvah platform through which bar- and bat-mitzva-aged kids perform mitzva (good deeds) projects. And as Israel celebrates its 70th birthday, there has been a wonderful opportunity to send an educational program in the form of Yom Ha’atzmaut kits to 350 schools. JNF does this every year, and this time the medium was Israel’s Declaration of Independence. The program is geared to middle- and highschool students and has received exceptional reviews.

One of the cornerstones of a person’s Jewish National Fund journey includes their attendance at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI-JNF). More than 30,000 alumni have been transformed by the life-altering experiences both within the classroom on the school’s Hod Hasharon campus and through touring the country.

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Such has been the school’s success, including a sustained push to increase enrollment from around 1,300 to 5,000 students, that a second campus is being constructed in Beersheba, capital of the Negev and one of Israel’s fastest growing cities.

Assistant Vice President of JNF’s National Board and AMHSI Board President Joe Wolfson, who has sent two of his own children to AMHSI-JNF, is a big believer in the power and impact studying at AMHSI-JNF for a semester can have. The impact is not just confined simply to Israel; it is also connected to personal development as well.

“AMHSI high school students come to learn the facts of Jewish history and understand the historical connection to our homeland,” said Wolfson. “Nothing can compare to such an experiential learning experience – learning history at the places it occurred and going to locations in a chronological order.”

Wolfson is excited about the school’s expansion to Beersheba and is looking forward to more than a more sprinkling of the “Muss magic,” particularly with regard to the pairing of Alexander Muss students and the potential for internships at the southern city’s burgeoning hi-tech sector.

To further assist in positively impacting the narrative regarding Israel, there are additional programs designed specifically for college campuses. In addition to trips to Israel, these include Positively Israel, which focuses on Israel’s position on the world stage in renewable energy, agricultural innovation, water recycling, and medical breakthroughs – facets that help all of humanity, not just Israel. While this message is important for Jewish American students, it is also critical to engage with students from other backgrounds, who may have been exposed to a negative narrative of Israel. JNF brings them to Israel to see the realities for themselves.

The transition from high-school student to college freshman can be a confusing one – and increasingly intimidating when it comes to Israel and support for the Jewish state.

“In general, when kids are in high school they are ill-prepared for the level of anti-Israel sentiment at college – and they don’t know how to respond to such hatred,” said Dr. Barbara Sommer, Co-assistant Vice President, College Activists and a JNF Northern California board member.

Sommer argued that the problem is not just non-Jews, but that many Jews without any kind of connection to Israel lend legitimacy to criticism of it by virtue of their being Jewish.

Sommer and Wolfson agree that it is essential to bring college leaders and faculty members – who have yet to make up their mind – to Israel to see the country, interact with their academic peers doing similar work, understand its borders, and meet with Israeli leaders. And just as AMHSIJNF students are exposed to history in the place that it happened, so too are these groups through JNF’s Faculty Fellowship Program, and talking with them and providing them with the facts is a key component of the continuum.

“Working on joint research projects with people in Israel can bring collaboration and voice, not boycott,” Sommer added.

From the outside at least, the situation on college campuses across the length and breadth of the United States seems tough for Jewish students as a collective, particularly for those who identify as pro-Israel. Like many programs, countering the anti-Israel narrative has seen both success and failure. JNF’s response is to become active rather than reactive, to try and target campuses (like Israel’s opponents do) for support and student mentoring.

The Israel Continuum is a timely reminder of the need to engender love and support of Israel among American Jewry’s youngest members. It highlights that it is never too early to try and instill an emotional attachment among Jewish youth for Israel, while serving as a reminder that waiting until too long to connect with individuals in high school or college may be too late. Fortunately, Jewish National Fund is focused on the big picture, and will continue to educate future generations about the importance of the place that’s truly a miracle – Israel. 

This article was written in cooperation with JNF-USA.

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