North American emissaries fight Diaspora alienation

No matter how you put it, younger US Jews are less attached to Israel.

american jews 88 (photo credit: )
american jews 88
(photo credit: )
When sociologist Steven M. Cohen addressed a room full of young Israeli emissaries this week, this is what he told them: No matter how you ask the question, younger US Jews are less attached to Israel. Cohen's conclusion came from his most recent study, "Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation from Israel," which details the erosion of ties with Israel. Jewish Agency Chairman Ze'ev Bielski's comments later that morning came in stark contrast. He spoke with optimism of his own experience as an emissary in South Africa. At the time, the country had 120,000 Jews, for the most part comfortable and well-off. Bielski never imagined they would pick up and leave. However most did, some immigrating to Australia and others to Israel. "Half the Jewish population lives in Israel today, the second half will get there," said Bielski. "It will take time, but it will happen." The two visions couldn't have been further apart. One spoke of a bleak reality, the other of a distant dream. For the 150 emissaries who gathered in Westchester County, north of New York City, this week for the annual conference of Jewish Agency emissaries of North America, both, it seemed, were necessary. "With the wrong diagnosis, we will come up with the wrong solution," Cohen said. The emissaries' work was a response to the problem laid out by Cohen, said Ilan Wagner, chief educational officer for the Jewish Agency North America. "Cohen's research is a rationale for doing what we are doing, and more communities are understanding that it's important not just to support Jews, but to invest domestically in a future connection [to Israel]." The growing alienation from Israel is unrelated to political orientation, according to Cohen's research. US Jews on the Left and the Right exhibit equal levels of engagement or disengagement with Israel. A decisive important factor is a sense of collective belonging. The data points strongly to the importance of "ethnic cohesion" - Jews relating to Jews - as key to buttressing attachment to Israel, said Cohen. "Building a specific identity with the Jewish collective as family, tribe and culture leads to attachment to Israel." Alan Hoffman, director of the Jewish Agency's education department, pointed to Canada Jewry as a community that had managed to preserve its ethnic identity, unlike in the US. "We have to come to grips with American individualism and the search for meaning," said Cohen. "There is something about American individualism and religiosity that is corrosive to American Jewish group identity." Israel, Hoffman said, could serve as a metaphor for Jewish collectivity. "For young people, there is a huge push against the collective, but Israel provides the Jewish collective with meaning." In workshops throughout the week, the emissaries learned how to translate Cohen's research into practical solutions. Tal Shieber, a 25-year-old from Ra'anana who is a second-year volunteer emissary in Montreal, offered first-year volunteers suggestions. He walked them through a Shabbat Murder Mystery night he developed to reel in the disengaged. Forty young Jews showed up to participate. "This gives unaffiliated Jews the chance to experience Shabbat for the first time," said Shieber. "It's fun, dynamic and brings in a young crowd." Listening attentively were: Noa Tessler, who volunteers in Youngstown, Ohio's Jewish population of 7,500; Itai Rosenfeld, who works in Mobile, Alabama, which has 1,000 Jews; and Michal Elboun who serves in Pensacola, Florida, which has 300 Jewish families. "I am working with people who have never been to Israel, where the JCC where I work is their only Jewish connection," said Tessler. "The community is thirsty to know what I have to say," said Rosenfeld. In another room, college emissaries were trying to figure out how best to respond to anti-Israel activities on campus. "Say a Latin Dance class decided to do an interpretive dance about the separation fence, how would you respond?" the session leader asked. Some suggested putting on a counter-dance, others suggested distributing educational fliers at the performance. Yonatan Barkan, born and raised on Kibbutz Ga'ash, near Netanya, knows the ins and outs of campus politics. As an emissary at the University of California at Sacramento, and Sacramento State University, both highly politicized campuses, Barkan has learned how and how not to respond to anti-Israel activity. The most successful approach has been "quiet but powerful" protest, he said. "Hillel is under a lot of pressure to react to everything, but I don't want to be dragged into the mud wrestling," said Barkan. "My job is not to bash Islam, it is to better represent Israel and [to] explain the conflict as I know it." That means being sensitive to issues of freedom of speech. When anti-Israel speakers appear on campus, Barkan instructs Jewish students to react peacefully. When Norman Finkelstein, author of The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering spoke earlier this year, Jewish students handed out educational materials. "But there were no interruptions, no circus," said Barkan. "We don't want to prevent him from speaking, because the university is a marketplace of ideas, but we want to emphasize that a line is being crossed." Behind the scenes, Barkan has taken on the University of California system, which suspended its study abroad program in Israel in 2002, following a terrorist attack at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "I think it's ridiculous," said Barkan, who has been pressuring state senators to reinstate the program. Cohen told the emissaries the No. 1 guarantor of success to increasing engagement with Israel was spending time in the country. Birthright has largely taken care of sending young Jews to Israel for the first time. But the 10-day trips were not enough, he said. The more trips to Israel, the higher the attachment. And the longer the stay, the better, Cohen said. His message to the emissaries was clear: All policies should revolved around increased travel to Israel. Cohen's research validated the issues emissaries encountered, said Wagner. "This is not an optimistic survey, but it's energizing, because it gives our work perspective in terms of the larger trends in American Jewry."