A question of values

There really are differences between youngsters from Israel and those from the Diaspora.

I have had occasion to come into contact with Diaspora youth, and this has led me to ponder the differences between Israeli young people such as myself and those who grow up abroad. Through the youth movement I am active in, Noar Telem of the Reform movement in Israel, I've participated in a number of programs that have put me in contact with Jewish young people from various European countries and the US. The setting has usually been some kind of exchange program in which I traveled abroad or met with them here in Israel. My first impression was made two or three years ago, when I was about 15 and traveled to London with Noar Telem. Our purpose was to meet Jewish youth from abroad. To my surprise, I found myself feeling years older than British people my own age. Sometimes their behavior seemed almost infantile. It's all about life-style. From what I understand, for middle-class Jewish youth in English-speaking countries the scenario goes something like this: You go to school for 12 years and do some "stupid" things along the way, but in the long run there are no real problems. Just prior to graduation there is a mad rush to get into the best college or university. Freshman year sometimes passes in a drunken haze, followed eventually by attempts to land a job, and - the hope is - move up the corporate ladder until, at age 35, you have a nice house in suburbia. That may be over-simplified, but it's how it looks from afar. HARDLY ANY Diaspora youth of my age whom I meet take any real interest in the world around them, or in anything bigger than themselves and their circle of friends and family. Perhaps this is why there are so many American teenagers who have experimented with drugs, and why so many have had sexual encounters at incredibly young ages such as 12 or 13. Many American teens seem overly self-involved, or just plain bored. This isn't to say we do not have such problems here, just that the scope is considerably less. There seems to be a lack of real values and strongly-held beliefs among many of the Diaspora youth I meet - it's a difference in culture. Of course, those people who do come to Israel display a commendable degree of interest in things bigger than themselves. But there are masses of others who have never even considered visiting. The difference in this country, for better or worse, is that here we are faced with a sometimes painful, uncensored and close-to-home reality that involves terrorism, war, and the kind of societal tensions that make growing up in Israel unique. Our morality is tested by our daily lives. Living in Israel puts things in perspective and forces just about everybody to form opinions about the issues that plague our society. Thus we have very few young people who do not have political opinions, and most even think they know the best way to solve all of Israel's problems. Such is not the case in other countries. Jewish youth abroad lead relatively pastoral lives. They aren't forced to deal with the problems we must confront on a daily basis. We are constantly faced with a harsh existential reality that compels us to scrutinize our beliefs. We forge a system of personal truths which will, for better or worse, accompany us for the rest of our lives. I am not saying that the fact we must deal with troubling issues 24/7, 365 days a year is a good thing. It is simply our reality. But it does create a situation in which I personally feel quite disconnected at times from my Jewish peers elsewhere. I am not trying to say that Israeli youth is "better" or more moral than Jewish youth worldwide. And I have a special admiration for people who care enough about the wider world and the Jewish people to come and visit here. Even when their initial reasons for coming are not all that altruistic, it's still a good step. It's hard to visit here without being moved in some way. I also very much enjoyed my most recent contact with Diaspora youth from Congregation Rodef Shalom in New York City. I felt I did succeed in forming some real connections, and I appreciated the opportunity to spend time with some very engaging people from a background very different to mine. The connection to Israel is what will keep the Diaspora Jewish population strong and united, and stop it from becoming hopelessly assimilated. As such, the importance of creating links with Diaspora youth cannot be emphasized too strongly. The writer is a 12th-grade student at The Hebrew University Secondary School, Jerusalem.