(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘Zionism’ is not a dirty word in Australia.
While research has found that using the word “Zionism” is damaging to the pro-Israel cause – especially in America – the Australian Jewish community brandishes that word with pride, and with much success.
I flew to Melbourne on my first visit to the beautiful land down under to give the keynote address at the 10th biennial Jewish Educator’s Conference, organized by the Zionist Federation of Australia (ZFA).
Some 500 Jewish teachers and principals from Australia and around the world were in attendance, and they saw something unique: while there are numerous educators’ conferences in many countries, what set this one apart is that it was sponsored by the local Zionist federation.
It’s clear that the local leadership, led by Dr. Ron Weiser and Dr. Danny Lamm, gets it: In order to inspire our youth to be Zionists and filled with Zionist pride, they must be surrounded with Zionism at every stage of their development.
Sessions at this conference tackled classic educational topics, such as: how to teach prayer, how to make Jewish studies engaging and meaningful, how to teach Talmud most effectively, and how to bring spirituality into our classrooms.
It also addressed 21st-century themes, like how to use modern technology to teach Hebrew language and Biblical texts.
But because it was created and sponsored by the Zionist Federation, the conference was filled with an Israel-oriented spirit.
Thus other sessions included understanding the BDS movement and how we should react to it; religion and state in Israel; and teaching Israel through art and poetry.
The all-inclusive philosophy of the ZFA has led to their bringing young Israelis to lead months of extra-curricular Zionist activities; and to the founding and operating of “Habayit” – the Home of Hebrew Culture, which offers Hebrew-language programs, Israeli cultural activities, and much more.
Most important, the ZFA supports the Australian Zionist Youth Council, the umbrella organization for seven Zionist youth movements: Betar, Bnei Akiva, Habonim Dror, Hashomer Hatzair, Hineni, Netzer and Tzofim. The result is that the youth of the community who are affiliated with any of these wide-ranging movements are passionate about Israel, and proud Zionists.
As one experiences the Australian Jewish community, one sees and feels how a Zionist spirit and the word “Zionism” permeates the atmosphere. This is best captured in a stunning site in the Mizrachi synagogue in Melbourne, which has two adornments on the walls on either side of the Holy Ark. On one side is the prayer for the welfare of the State of Israel, on the other, a prayer for the safety of IDF soldiers. Such a prominent display has a major impact on the community’s Jews, and I saw an unashamed connection to Israel expressed amongst the Australian youth that was stronger than I have seen in any other country.
But the most significant result of Australia’s Zionist-focused education is the high percentage of aliya. As Ginnete Searle, executive director of ZFA, explained, “Aliya is a key priority of the ZFA, the pinnacle of Zionist expression. Aliya is celebrated in our community – prior to their departure, at our ‘mezuza ceremonies,’ we send off olim with blessings for their new homes.”
ZFA President Lamm points to the high integration rate among Australian immigrants as a result of the ideology infused in the community, and by the work ZFA does to help prepare the new immigrants for a successful transition.
I write these words only half way through my visit to Australia, which also includes visits to Canberra and Sydney. But from what I have experienced so far, the studies that show that the term “Zionism” pushes away the unaffiliated does not reflect how an openly expressed proud Zionism can influence those already inside the community, or touch those who are yet within reach.
Given the sad reality of a Jewish world at risk of losing even those who are already affiliated, the success of the Zionist Federation of Australia model has me convinced that all Jewish communities must re-embrace very open and unapologetic Zionism.
No, it’s not a dirty word: Zionism must be the driving and central force for all communal organizations.