We need to do more

Liberal Jewish activists would like us to believe that if only Israel would be a little bit nicer, more tolerant, young Jews would flock to support it.

Flags of the United States and Israel (photo credit: REUTERS)
Flags of the United States and Israel
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The delegates are heading home after days of intense conversation at the GA, the annual Federation conclave held last week in Tel Aviv. It was US Ambassador David Friedman focused on the most important issue: the drift of many American Jews from any level of engagement. Friedman compared the phenomenon to the last of the Four Sons mentioned at the Seder table, the one who does not know how to ask. The same idea was echoed that same morning by Prime Minister Netanyahu who said the greatest priority is bolstering Jewish identity. Clearly the Jews who are disengaged see little reason to be involved with Judaism or support Israel must be a top priority in outreach.
Liberal Jewish activists would like us to believe that if only Israel would be a little bit nicer, more tolerant, young Jews would flock to support it. Marius Nacht, one of the co-chairs of the GA, summed up the attitude when he called Israel a rambunctious society saying, “We need to be adult in the room.” It’s a strange statement, seeing that it is Israel whose economy is booming and today is rated one of the highest in global quality of life. But what might be really troubling Nacht is that in Israel Jews are a bit more Jewish. Maybe he hearkens to the day of the Israeli filled with a secular nationalism with a disdain for the ancient traditions of the past. Today Judaism is woven into the society: 30% of Israelis are Shabbat observant and another 30% traditional.
Whenever I visit, I am awed how Israelis are constantly grappling with the intersection of modern life and ancient Jewish teachings. Be it the taxi driver who discuss lofty theological ideas or the customer service representative at El Al who argues with me about the values of living in Israel and abroad. Zionism, though started to some degree as a reaction against classical Jewish identity rooted in Torah, has fostered a society that nurtures Jewish life. It’s in the United States where you must be proactive to be Jewish, that is where the real challenge lies.
 American Jews live in aa golden era when antisemitism has been shunted to the fringes of the society. There is opportunity for all. There are no longer crises like the plight of Soviet Jewry to galvanize Jews; engagement in Jewish life must be made as a conscience choice. The modern challenge to world Jewry is to create that imperative for Jews to make this choice. To be part to the process of seeing their tradition as a tool and teaching for that has relevance in their lives.
 For a few decades we had a Judaism of nostalgia. As Tevye said in Fiddler on the Roof, “We do this because that’s what our grandparents did.” But that lasts just a generation or two. Today the key to Jewish continuity lies in Jewish education. There must be active engagement with the wisdom of Torah. When a modern Jew sees the value of Jewish wisdom, Judaism and Israel will become important to him or her.
We don’t need the “Reverse Birthright” that President Reuven Rivlin suggested. Spending millions sending Israelis to the Diaspora will not reconnect American Jews to Judaism. At a session I joined at the GA, I shared a discussion about this with a group of young Israelis; they were excited with the prospect of meeting Jews from overseas. It’s a luxury in a time of limited resources. We need to invest our funds directly into a wide spectrum of programs that engage youth: Initiatives for Jewish learning, Israel visitation programs like Birthright and Masa, outreach on campus and to millennials.
Let’s bring Judaism to Jews and not wait for them to come to us. Let’s unleash the wellsprings of Jewish wisdom that will show modern Americans how Jewish teachings are relevant to their lives. This approach is not experimental, it’s already happening and is only hindered by limited resources. By dedicating Jewish communal funds toward programs that reach out to Jews, we will ensure a strong and vibrant future. By focusing on issues of contention, we just advance the agenda of Liberal Jewish American groups who want to strengthen their presence in Israel; this does little to stem the tide of assimilation.
It’s time to focus on the positive not the negative and be proactive. It’s not a time to talk, it’s time to do.
The writer is a Chabad shliach in California. His email is rabbi@ocjewish.com.


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