Israel enters battle against assimilation at American Jewry conference

Netanyahu vows to connect Jews the world over in attempt to bolster identity abroad.

Netanyahu at Jewish Federations GA 4 370 (photo credit: Hadas Parush)
Netanyahu at Jewish Federations GA 4 370
(photo credit: Hadas Parush)
The State of Israel is set to partner with Diaspora Jewry in an attempt to bolster diminishing Jewish identity abroad, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Sunday.
Speaking to the assembled heads of Jewish Federations of North America at the organization’s General Assembly in Jerusalem, the prime minister announced the establishment of what he termed a “broad and deep initiative” aimed at reaching “the inner cores of identity of the Jewish people around the world.”
While details of the proposed partnership have largely been lacking, senior government officials have previously stated that it would likely receive significant Israeli funding and that it could lead to a “strategic plan for the upcoming 25 years.”
Last Thursday, at the conclusion of a two-day strategic planning summit on Diaspora affairs, Netanyahu said that “it’s particularly important to embrace this initiative and work together” and to “create a firm base of identity” to combat rising assimilation and alienation from Jewish life in the Diaspora.
The summit was held by the Prime Minister’s Office in conjunction with the Jewish Agency and the Ministry of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs.
Echoing these comments, Netanyahu told Federation leaders that the future of American Jewry is also Israel’s future. He said that he had been supportive of programs aimed at cementing ties between Israel and the Diaspora since the establishment of Birthright in the late 1990s.
While the new program’s parameters have not yet been set, Netanyahu did say that he intended it to “unite the Jewish people.”
“The forces of assimilation and intermarriage are there. We also read these recent polls [and] we understand we have a challenge,” he said, referring to last month’s Pew Research Center survey which reported a 60 percent intermarriage rate among Jews married since the millennium.
According to the study, which surveyed almost 3,500 Jews between February and June, there has been a generational diminution in identification as a “Jew by religion.” This development echoes broader trends within American religious life, the study asserted.
Members of the so-called greatest generation are 93% likely to define themselves as Jews by religion, while only 68% of millennials – those born after 1980 – are apt to describe themselves in such terms.
The Pew findings came a day after Brandeis University published a study asserting that demographers have been seriously underestimating the number of US Jews, pegging the country’s total Jewish population at some 6.8 million.
The Pew report was the hot topic of conversation during the GA, with delegates thronging Jerusalem’s International Convention Center discussing its ramifications and debating policy alternatives.
“We’ve been studying the report in depth,” JFNA President Jerry Silverman said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post last week, adding that while nothing in the report was truly shocking, it has “shaken up the GA.”
While the agenda of the conference has not changed dramatically, one session has been added dealing specifically with the Pew report’s findings. Federation presidents and executives bandied new ideas for coping with the rising alienation from communal Jewish life described in the report during a closed door session early Sunday morning, JFNA Chairman Michael Siegal told the Post following Netanyahu’s speech.
Among the ideas raised during the meeting was the establishment of a wedding day birthright program to provide free trips to Israel to newly married couples. Siegal cautioned that this may not be practical, but that it was representative of the kinds of ideas being bandied about.
During his speech, Netanyahu told GA delegates that the pursuit of “internal peace,” and not only peace with Israel’s neighbors, has guided him as prime minister and that he sought to “keep the peace of the Jewish people.”
Citing a recent compromise solution over prayer rights for non-Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall, he said that he had to “worry about the inclusion of Jews from every part of the Jewish world.”
The compromise over the sight, which was brokered by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, exemplified the new approach that he would take with Diaspora Jewry, Netanyahu explained, in that it was arrived at after consultation.
“I believe that we have to consult together and reach solutions together,” he asserted.
The prime minister’s comments struck a chord with the audience, which had previously applauded loudly when GA North American co-chair Michael Gelman announced that American Jewry was waiting “for the day when Israel will realize the dream when it is a Jewish democratic and pluralistic state.”