American Jews should learn from Australia’s Zionist ‘Kanga-Jews’

Welcome to Australia, where I recently completed a 29-speech, 11-day, three-city tour with the Zionist Federation of Australia. It’s truly “down under,” charmingly upside down.

Sydney, Australia Opera House view 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Sydney, Australia Opera House view 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last month, I had a delightfully anachronistic experience. I met representatives of seven youth movements, from Right to Left. These smart, idealistic, passionately committed twentysomethings proudly call themselves “Zionist.”
That Friday night I sang and danced-in the Shabbat with dozens of students from one Jewish high school. Most are “nonreligious” – many drove there. Nevertheless, they welcomed the Sabbath Queen with a hassidic-level nuclear-powered intensity. They do this weekly, voluntarily, joyously!
Welcome to Australia, where I recently completed a 29-speech, 11-day, three-city tour with the Zionist Federation of Australia. It’s truly “down under,” charmingly upside down.
Unlike their American cousins, most Australian Jews attend Jewish day school, join youth movements, visit Israel – repeatedly – and cherish their Jewish traditions.
Ninety-two percent have visited Israel. In America it’s barely 50%, having doubled thanks to Birthright. In Australia, 33% intermarry, twice as many as did 20 years ago, but half the American rate. And, unlike many Americans, most Australian Jews still consider intermarriage a threat to the communal future, not an “opportunity.”
Many Australian students are “out” as Zionists. Considering themselves Jews “first,” they are proudly nationalist. Similarly, most communal leaders are passionate Zionists. They’re often to the community’s “Right,” religiously, politically. They’re modern Maccabees, not Social Justice Warriors in rabbinic robes. In America, many non-Orthodox rabbis and community leaders lead the charge against Israel, wasting precious Torah-teaching time sermonizing against Netanyahu, politicizing the relationship, then wondering why so many Jews seem fed up with Israel – and Judaism.
Which Jewish community’s future would you bet on? Who should coach whom? True, American Jewry is 50 times larger than the 112,000-strong Aussie community. And, while there are pockets of American Jewish vitality, most American Jews drift away as Australians lean in.
The communal histories differ. Pre-1920s immigrants traded Eastern European poverty and oppression for American freedom and prosperity. Post-Holocaust immigrants made Australian Jewry. They emerged from Hitler’s Hell-on-earth to create a little slice of heaven, with a charming Yiddish-tinged Aussie accent.
Both narratives reflect well on their host countries. But America’s melting pot never stops liquefying tradition. It’s left many Jews stripped of their identity, too anxious to conform, not comfortable – or literate enough – to break free. By contrast, most Jews are grateful to be born in the Land of Oz, but remain Jewish patriots. The pressure to assimilate didn’t melt their Jewish spines and souls, even while surviving Australian rules football and Vegemite toasts.
Sociologically, American Jews often leave their nests at 18, becoming bald eagles, loners, soaring high professionally, but stripped of identity and community. “Kanga-Jews” raise their “Jewy-Joeys” in nourishing pouches for longer, teaching them to stand on their hind legs – anchored in tradition, punching above their weight Jewishly – while leaping boldly into the modern world.
A DRAMATIC generational shift is hitting Australian Jewry. The Holocaust heroes who catapulted the community forward, financially, institutionally and Zionistically, are dying. Their baby-boomer children, who imbibed a profound, often trauma-tinged Jewish patriotism, are aging and retiring. The members of the next generation are true Kanga-Jews. They fit in as much as their grandparents stood out. But just as their elders learned to fit in enough to prosper, these youngsters must stand out enough to remain Jew-positive.
It’s a difficult conundrum. How do Jewish schools prepare their students to master Australian careerist culture, so they can prosper (and afford Jewish day school!), while emphasizing Judaism’s eternal, delightfully unhip, countercultural message, so they can find meaning?
Modern culture is increasingly either-or rigid, insisting on one extreme or the other. Judaism has always danced with dualities, being old yet new, conventional yet unconventional, pragmatic yet idealistic, hands-on yet spiritual, liberal and nationalist, rigid enough to keep us separate yet adaptable enough to help us acculturate.
The line distinguishing healthy acculturation from suicidal assimilation confuses most modern Jews, especially American Jews. We need a generation savvy enough to master and improve the New World, yet confident and literate enough to remain rooted in the Old World.
For those who don’t choose to move there, Israel can inspire in two ways. Israel’s vital Jewish life, its organic, authentic, natural, 24-7 Jewish expressions, both for religious Jews and peoplehood people, offer an inspiring model that sustains Jewish life throughout the world. And the new Israel, which fuses the old and the new, hi-tech and tradition, offers an intriguing, inspiring model that works.
Savvy, forward-thinking community leaders recognize this challenge – and this Zionist opportunity. They are experimenting with different ways to engage these young Jews, keeping Melbourne and Sydney vital, while appreciating Israel as the center of the Jewish universe and the standard-setter in modern identity-building, especially for the vast majority who are more peoplehood people than religious.
Israeli Jews are Davidians – deeply patriotic, happy to dream and sing Psalms, yet sometimes distracted by the basic fight for survival. Too many American Jews are Isaiahans, defining Judaism as only about peace and universalism. Australian Jews are Mosaians. Like Moses, freed from oppression, they found personal meaning and redemption. They feel proudly Jewish. Rather than negating the centrality of the Promised Land, they emphasize it.
No longer rebuilding from the ashes, Australian Jewry’s new mission is finding meaning amid the gold rush. That requires shifting from command-and-control guilt trips to Talmudic-style, questioning, Jewish journeys; from the “oy” of Judaism to the joy; from a political Zionism of just supporting Israel to a Mosaic identity Zionism of finding meaning for yourself through multidimensional, deep relationships with Jewish tradition, the Jewish people and the Jewish state.
The writer is the author of The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.