Unless things change dramatically soon, 2016 will be defined by a drastic rise in anti-Semitism, when quiet whispers suddenly turned into violent outbursts.
While Europe is dealing with the ramifications of intense geopolitical and demographic changes, here in Israel, local tourism has been undergoing a crisis. The number of visitors has plummeted, partly due to the recent wave of terrorist activity.
In this changing global environment, how should we approach the issue of Jewish identity when talking with Generation Z, those born in the mid-90s to early 2000s? Enter the Israel Experience, a subsidiary of the Jewish Agency, which seems to have come up with a great formula to address this issue.
“We at Israel Experience aim to build customized trips for young adults who want to improve their Hebrew, or to volunteer, or to do a professional internship. A few of our participants choose to study, such as at the Rimon Music Experience and the Levinsky College of Education,” says Amos Hermon, CEO of Israel Experience. “We’ve been keeping track of trends in Jewish communities around the world, and together with community leaders and senior educators we’ve built unique programs that attract young Jews and get them involved in the community. We’ve been working closely with Levinsky College in order to train a generation of educators to work with immigrants.”
Next week, Hermon will attend the Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting in France, together with hundreds of Jewish leaders from around the world. It is the first time that the Board of Governors is meeting in Paris in an expression of solidarity with the French Jewish community, which numbers more than half a million and is the largest in Europe. Over the past year, some 6,000 young people from France have participated in the Israel Experience and in a range of other programs as part of the Jewish Agency’s vast investment in the French Jewish community.
Active in hundreds of Jewish communities in 50 countries, Israel Experience is working to strengthen Jewish identity and deepen connections with Israel through educational trips for this age group. Israel Experience offers various programs that is seeing its number of participants grow year to year. These include youth groups, Jewish day schools, Taglit-Birthright, and Masa and programs for Jewish youngsters from all over the world to intern in Israel.
“We try to tailor trips for each community, since members of the younger generation are participating in Jewish programs less than kids did just 10 years ago,” says Hermon. No longer do kids naturally join synagogues or Jewish youth groups, or go to the Hillel House on college campus’s like they used to.
In cooperation with Masa, Israel Experience has established a database of over 1,000 companies and non-profits that accept thousands of young Jews from around the world to work in internships for a period of between two to 10 months. Companies and institutions like HP, Deloitte, the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Wix, the Jaffa Institute, Ahava, and Hadassah University Medical Center all hire interns through Israel Experience. In addition to interning, the young people participate in Hebrew language courses and meet with peers and immigrants from their country of origin.
One interesting success story is Audrey Jackson, 23, from Portland, Oregon. Jackson interned as a marketing coordinator at MobileODT, and when she came to Israel, she fell in love with the country. When her internship ended, she was offered a full-time job. Jackson decided to stay longer, and enrolled at an ulpan to improve her Hebrew.
During our conversation at her apartment on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street, Jackson said, “Before I came to Israel three years ago, I didn’t know anything at all about the country, except that there were lots of deserts and camels. But then my brother participated in an Israel Experience internship and loved it, so I decided to try it out, too. I wasn’t interested in coming here on a vacation; I wanted to be a part of things and learn about the culture. In the end I discovered amazing food and wonderful people – and who knows, I might just end up making aliya in the end.”
Some people also come to Israel to volunteer. Julie Sibitz and her husband, Alexei, are a young couple from Belarus. Alexei participated in a professional course at Bezeq International and Julie volunteered as a pharmacist with Friends for Health.
“We’d never heard about Israel Experience until we happened to be at a Masa exposition in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. It looked amazing, so we jumped at the opportunity to travel to Israel,” says Sibitz.
“We’ve been in Israel for six months so far and we have four months left. We’re seriously talking about staying and making aliya.”
Sibitz says that she and her husband knew very little about Israel before they arrived. “All we knew was that it was really hot here, that you could go to the beaches of three different seas, that there were wars all the time because of the conflict with the Arabs, and that the cost of living is pretty high. We came because we wanted to experience what it was like to live in a modern and democratic country.”
Now, the couple feel more comfortable with not only knowledge about Israel, but about Judaism in general.
“We’ve learned so much these past six months of Israel Experience. It’s not at all like I expected it to be. For example, we’ve learned a lot about the Jewish religion.
Back in Belarus, the only thing we knew about Jews was that the men wear black and the women wear wigs.
That’s it. Now we know so much more. We’ve learned Hebrew and have enjoyed being a part of Israeli society and meeting so many new amazing people.”
MORE THAN 30,000 young Jews and educators from over 50 countries came to Israel in 2015 with Israel Experience programs. In addition, Israel Experience also won the Education Ministry tender for organized trips to Poland, and has now brought 50,000 Israelis and Jews from around the world to former concentration camps and Jewish heritage sites in Europe. During a solidarity demonstration that was held this year by 1,000 Jewish high-school seniors from France who were in Israel on a study tour, a certificate of appreciation was awarded to the 500,000th Israel Experience participant.
These are impressive statistics, but the challenges before us are daunting. No longer does Israel enjoy overwhelming support from overseas Jewish communities as it did in the past.
“Until the 1980s, the American Jewish community was completely mobilized and in 100 percent support of Israeli governments – both on the Right and Left,” says Hermon. “AIPAC used to be the strongest Jewish organization, but today there is a variety of Jewish groups that have extremely divergent views on whether Israel should remain in control of Judea and Samaria and the Orthodox hegemony in the Jewish State.”
Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky describes three ways in which anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head. “When someone tries to dehumanize Israel, and compares it with Nazi Germany, in my opinion this is an anti-Semitic act,” says Sharansky.
“The second form of anti-Semitism is delegitimization.
When people say that the State of Israel doesn’t have the right to exist, it’s the same as when they used to say that the Jewish people didn’t have the right to exist.
“The third type of anti-Semitism is the double standard seen at the UN. Between 70 and 80 percent of UNHRC and UNESCO decisions are against the State of Israel. This is outright anti-Semitism. How else can you explain that the UN turns a blind eye toward the millions of Muslims being massacred by other Muslims?” Translated by Hannah Hochner.