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Prior to the Aksa intifada, summer programs to Israel geared to American Jewish youth had reached an all-time high. However, in the wake of suicide bombings there was a justifiable and precipitous drop in these programs.
As time passed parents again began sending their children here. While they are yet to reclaim their former numerical glory, last summer there was a hint that Israel youth programs were on the cusp of replenishing themselves.
Then something happened.
WITH RARE exceptions, the actual numbers of young American Jews coming to Israel stagnated. This reality cut across all organizational and denominational lines - and occurred before this summer's outbreak of hostilities in Gaza and Lebanon.
How does one explain this phenomenon?
Economic. A convergence of financial considerations has sent fees for summer programs skyrocketing: a sluggish US economy, the exorbitant cost of university education, the rise in airline prices due to the increased cost of fuel, and lingering unemployment among the upper middle-class.
Taglit-Birthright. Before parents shell out $7,000 for their child to visit Israel for little more than a month, and just before they have to break the bank with $40,000 per year college tuition, they can send their kid on a free, 10-day trip to Israel when s/he reaches 18. (It should be noted that since the establishment of Taglit-Birthright, only about 10% of those eligible in North America have taken advantage of this fully subsidized program.)
The obsession of many high school students with improving not only their grades, but also with building up their extra-curricular profile so they will be accepted into a prestigious university. They utilize their summer to enroll in special courses to complement their year-round studies and do internships in law offices, computer firms and hospitals, or volunteer for a social, environmental or political cause.
The ongoing instability in the region. Indeed, during this frightening summer one must commend virtually all the Diaspora youth organizations for maintaining their programs. As for the coming year, given this summer's reality, along with the continued threat of terrorism, a parent's resolve to send a child here will understandably weaken. And, there are those periodic US State Department warnings against travel to the Middle East.
The negative image of Israel as portrayed in most of the international media. The attraction of Israel as an enlightened country cannot compete with a depiction of Israel as a "brutal occupier" and "warmongering" state.
The sixth source for this downward spiral is the new rush in synagogue life toward "spirituality." While no one denies the need for spiritual fulfillment, there is something artificial about an almost evangelical thirst to turn Jewish life into a revivalist tent meeting, where faith becomes the single definition of one's Judaism.
Diaspora Jewish identity is being reduced exclusively to a religious expression. But Jewish self-identification should be more than a theological designation. Historical Judaism has always been about people, land, language, state, culture and religion.
If American Jews categorize their Judaism as solely another civic religion of their country, fed by spiritual longing without any attachments to the material elements of our heritage, then Israel, which represents the geographical focus of our 2,000-year journey of survival, will naturally fall off the radar screen.
Before climbing Masada, one youth was said to have remarked to his guide: "This must be the place where my father's ancestors fought my mother's ancestors!"
WE NOW REACH the most definitive reason for the distancing of American Jews from Israel - the fact that the child in question has an Italian Catholic mother and a Jewish father. Interfaith marriages are decimating the American Jewish community.
While interfaith marriages are a fact of American Jewish life and efforts at outreach to interfaith couples should be a priority on the part of both secular and religious Jewish institutions, conversion must be actively promoted.
This is no easy task. It requires great sensitivity. However, unless non-Jewish spouses are encouraged to be part of the Jewish people, and not just the Jewish religion, in the next generation not only will youth programs to Israel dry up, so too will adult tours be a thing of the past.
There must be incentives for non-Jews to convert - a trip to Israel being one of them. If, as suggested by some in the American Jewish community, non-Jewish spouses should be singled out for prayerful recognition in the synagogue and extolled for acts of Jewish heroism because they agree to raise their children Jewish, what motivation is there to convert?
More so, what inducement is there for a Jew to marry another Jew? Such acts of accommodation may make sociological sense, but they will eventually create a new brand of Judaism - one universalized beyond recognition, having little, if anything, in common with historical Judaism, and thus little empathic identification with Israel even when its survival is threatened, as it is today.
The end result will be the "Protestantization" of the American Jewish community, whose ties to the Jewish people and the Jewish state as historical anchors of Jewish identity will be irrevocably severed.
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