Home to the next generation

The opening of Hillel Houses across Israel has met with enormous success - not only among international students but also native Israelis.

At the General Assembly held in Jerusalem in November, a recurring theme was the impact Hillel Houses have had on Jewish youth today. A private ceremony was held for Edgar Bronfman, one of the philanthropists who funds the organization. The honoree's son, Adam, spoke of Hillel's aim of preserving the Jewish legacy within the "next generation." Hillel International is seen as an answer to one of the greatest threats facing Jews today: the threat, as the younger Bronfman put it, of "[Jewish] intolerance and indifference." Contemporary Judaism needs to focus "[on] gaining equality not only in the secular world but also among ourselves." This statement holds true especially in Israel, where Hillel aims to offer an alternative to what it perceives as widespread apathy by many secular Israelis - born of a lack of exposure to the significance that a connection to one's Jewish heritage can offer. The Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya hosts one of Israel's most vibrant Hillel Houses. Although most of the students at the IDC international school, which comprises over 1,000 immigrants from 56 countries, were driven to study in Israel by a Zionist ideology, many desired a more meaningful relationship with their heritage.. They felt that Zionism alone would not sustain their passion for living in Israel, so they sought to pair it with Jewish values. The opening of Hillel Houses across Israel has met with enormous success, not only among international students but also by native Israelis - a surprising phenomenon, considering the purpose of these centers. In America, Hillel Houses were instituted to reconnect Jewish students with a sense of yiddishkeit, primarily in an attempt to protect against intermarriage and assimilation. Hillel is meant to serve as a social network for Jews, a place for revival of the Shabbat experience and a way for Diaspora students to connect with Israel and Zionist values. For a native Israeli such an organization seems superfluous. Yet Hillel Israel has opened offices on four new campuses since 2000, and every one of them has been welcomed warmly by the students. "While young Israelis speak Hebrew and follow the cycle of the Jewish calendar, many regard Jewish tradition as outdated, inaccessible or irrelevant to them. All this has contributed to a crisis of meaning among Israeli youth," explains Rabbi Yossie Goldman, head of Hillel Israel. "Hillel Israel emphasizes the relevance of Jewish life to today's Israeli students, inspiring them to explore their Jewish identity, advance their personal and professional development, and enrich the State of Israel and the Jewish people." Part of the problem, as Hillel sees it, is that the definitions of "Judaism" and "Israeli culture" have become intertwined. Young Israelis grow up aware of Jewish tradition as inherent in everyday existence, but it makes many take their religion for granted. Yaniv Sasson, an alumnus of the IDC School of Government and a native Israeli, realized that something was wrong when his studies led to his knowing "a lot more about Islam and Christianity than about Judaism." "I grew up in a secular house where my knowledge of my religion was limited to the Bible stories I learned in elementary school," Sasson explains. "Because I grew up in a Jewish state, my Jewish identity stayed minor, whereas my Israeli identity was always at the forefront. I was drawn toward Hillel by a sense of curiosity. I was ashamed to say that my religion was a mystery to me, and I wanted to change that."