For decades, it has been studied and documented that the Israel experience – visiting Israel – helps elevate Jews religiously and fortifies their ties with the Jewish people. It’s the electricity one feels when he or she touches the Western Wall for the first time or experiences Shabbat in a world whose watch ticks to the beat of the Jewish clock.However, as more recent studies indicate a widening gap between Jews in Israel and America, one wonders if, when it comes to the waning Jewish identity of Millennial Jews, is Israel a part of the problem or the solution? The answer, according to Rabbi Ari Berman, president of Yeshiva University, is that there is an inherent tension between what draws young American Jews to Israel and what turns them away that stems far beyond politics or issues of kashrut, conversion or Shabbat. Berman was raised in the New York City borough of Queens and served in top rabbinical and educational roles in America before making aliya in 2008 to the West Bank community of Neve Daniel. In Israel, he completed his doctorate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and later served as head of the Heichal Shlomo Jewish Heritage Center in the city, and as an instructor at Herzog College in Alon Shvut. He returned to America in 2017 to begin his tenure as YU president, succeeding Richard Joel.
He told The Jerusalem Post this week that the reason young American Jews view Israel as something foreign is because they are raised to have a different concept of what modern democracy is about.“There is a fundamental difference between how Americans and Israelis understand the purpose of democracy,” Berman said. “The difference cuts along the lines of our understanding of two words: liberty and freedom.” Berman bases his argument on the book Liberty and Freedom by David Hackett Fischer, in which the author examines the concepts of liberty and freedom and argues that since the earliest colonies, Americans have shared ideals of liberty and freedom, but with very different meanings. Like DNA, these ideas have transformed and recombined in each generation.Fischer writes that the words themselves have differing origins. The Latinate “liberty” implies separation and independence. The root-meaning of “freedom” (akin to “friend”) connotes attachment: the rights of belonging in a community of free people. The tension between the two values has been a source of conflict and creativity throughout American history.According to Berman, this tension is also a root cause of the disconnect between the new generation of American Jews and Israel. He said liberty should be understood as the ability to live one’s life unencumbered by other people, whereas freedom is the ability of a people to come together and be free to build a society based on shared values and kinship.“Liberty means separation, but freedom means connection. America is built on liberty, which is why a heteronomous population is attracted to it. People come to America to live lives free from intrusion,” he said.“The State of Israel was born from a very different narrative,” he continued. “It was about the Jewish people coming together in their ancestral homeland to build the kind of just and Jewish society that they always dreamed of building.”As such (and ironically), the Kotel and Shabbat that turn Jews on – the “Jewish” that differentiates Israel from America or any other democracy and attracts Millennials to Birthright and studyabroad programs – become what confuses and turns away many young liberal Jews.In Berman’s perspective, Israel can and should work to be more inclusive of all types of American Jews so they can feel more connected, whether it be through compromises around an egalitarian section of the Kotel or conversion or other issues. However, none of these compromises will in and of themselves close the gap between Diaspora Jews and Israel. There will always be another problem, because Israel and America are two fundamentally different projects.The solution, he said, is education. His advice to his own religious- Zionist community is to take a leadership role in informing American Jews and mediating between them and Israel. American religious-Zionist Jews, who most of the time comfortably straddle themselves between America’s capitalistic enterprise and Zionism – a love of the land and people of Israel – are poised to help close the gap. Berman said that Yeshiva University flies the Israeli flag 365 days a year and celebrates Israeli national holidays alongside American holidays. Thousands of alumni, like Berman himself, have made aliya.These alumni, as well as YU students, tend to serve as counselors on the Birthright Israel program, where they have an influence on less-religiously observant students. Perhaps they are one of the reasons why studies by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University show that Birthright participants are far more likely to marry within the faith than are non-participants.“YU is uniquely placed to be a bridge between Israel and the Diaspora,” Berman said, as well as to strengthen this understanding of why Israel exists and how it can be embraced when viewed through a different lens. Additionally, he said that Israel has a responsibility to reach out to American Jews.The Jewish world has forever felt a sense of obligation to Israel, he went on. Today, Israel is stronger and a leader in technology and innovation that helps improve and advance all spheres of society. As such, the Jewish state has a responsibility to Jews around the world to express itself as a positive opportunity to connect to their Jewish identity.Finally, American Jewish leaders need to see that Israel is an important source and resource that they can tap into to help stop assimilation. Israel is not purposefully forcing young Jews to dissociate with her. However, the pro-Israel community and Israel itself must step up to fill the powerful role of helping Millennial Jews to be proud of their Judaism and providing meaning and connection to the Jewish aspect of their lives.Berman said: “It is clear Israel is the solution and not the problem.”