Don't damage American Jewish ties to Israel during COVID-19 - opinion

With all that is facing Israel and American Jewry at this moment, it seems daunting to take on the issue of the pandemic’s impact on the relationship between them.

 The writer’s nephew, Noam Spevack (top), climbs with a counselor on the USY Pilgrimage this past summer. (photo credit: Jeremy Malaga)
The writer’s nephew, Noam Spevack (top), climbs with a counselor on the USY Pilgrimage this past summer.
(photo credit: Jeremy Malaga)

The news earlier this month that Israel would reopen its borders to foreign visitors arrived the same day I was supposed to be returning from a trip there to visit our son. The irony was cruel. We had planned the trip for months, anticipating with joy spending time with our son, who is on his gap year studying in an Israeli yeshiva, and with our Israeli family and close friends. But the past two years have brought home a lesson that we humans find hard to accept: Our well-laid plans can be upended at any moment.

My experience was personal, but it is also deeply communal. Over the past nearly two years, public health concerns due to the coronavirus pandemic have upended the travel plans of thousands of American Jews hoping to visit Israel. The impact on American Jewish-Israeli relations of our collective inability to visit with one another is immeasurable and should be a focus for both communities.

In particular, we must think creatively about how to respond to the pandemic’s interruption of travel on younger and less affiliated Jews, whose ties to Israel may be more fragile. The American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) 2021 annual survey of American Jewish opinion found that while overall three out of five American Jews stated that being connected with Israel was important to their Jewish identity, that number fell to 46% among those ages 18-39. Likewise, only 34% of American Jews who identified as secular saw Israel as important to their Jewish identity.

The power of visits to Israel to foster deeper attachment between American Jews and the Jewish state is well-known. 73% of American Jews who have been to Israel reported that their visit strengthened their connection to Israel, the AJC survey found. This is unsurprising; there is nothing like personal experience to demystify and build bonds between peoples and cultures. Of course, the Israel-diaspora relationship is complex and multifaceted, and we would be naive to suggest that one trip is all that is needed for American Jews to feel close to Israel. However, we would be naive not to recognize how critical visiting Israel is to the fostering of a deep connection.

In pre-pandemic times, thousands of American Jewish high school students of varying affiliations traveled to Israel each summer on organized trips run by youth groups, sleep away camps, and other Jewish communal organizations. As well, tens of thousands of American Jewish college students and twenty-somethings traveled to Israel on trips like Birthright each year. Many who traveled on such trips might not otherwise have taken a trip to Israel, perhaps never.

Birthright begins flagship business fellowship in Israel (credit: BIRTHRIGHT ISRAEL)Birthright begins flagship business fellowship in Israel (credit: BIRTHRIGHT ISRAEL)

Those trips were canceled in 2020, and while some were able to go forward in 2021, mostly in the summer, even those ran with extensive public-health restrictions. It is still too early to know what 2022 will bring. High school is a mere four years; if students aren’t able to go to Israel in that key summer after 10th or 11th grade, the window of opportunity closes and the impact of those trips is lost forever. The same is true for Birthright trips. Most Birthright participants travel to Israel during their college years when they have time and low-bar access to the organized Jewish community through the wonderful work of Hillel. Here too, the window during which such young Jews could engage in such travel is closing. Many will not go once they have graduated college and begin building their adult lives.

ISRAEL AND the organized American Jewish community need to think creatively and in partnership about how to recapture at least some of these lost opportunities. While American Jews may be limited in their ability to visit Israel, they can still visit with the people of Israel, albeit in virtual spaces. As we continue to struggle through the pandemic, we need more programs such as One2One, a program created by Enter: The Jewish Peoplehood Alliance to bring together Israeli and American teens through virtual mifgashim (encounters) in partnership with the Israeli Ministry of Education and many American Jewish organizations, including the AJC. Of course, we are all tired of virtual spaces and we know that deep relationship-building between American Jews, Israelis and the State of Israel needs more than episodic encounters on a computer screen, but such programs still plant the seeds of connection that can be developed later on. They are far better than nothing.

At the same time, we must actively plan for a post-pandemic world and consider how we might offer opportunities for travel for those who missed their young adult trips. AJC’s survey found that only 45% of American Jews have traveled to Israel, over half of those only once. Those who have not gone reported that lack of funds, opportunity and interest are their most significant reasons.

Without subsidized, easily accessible and compelling structures for encouraging travel, it will not happen. One avenue might be to expand trips structured specifically for cohorts of young professionals in a particular field, which would foster the building of professional connections between America and Israel. Another is for the Israeli government to partner with private philanthropists and American Jewish organizations to subsidize trips for families with bar and bat mitzvah age children that would not only see the country, but also bring American Jewish families together with Israeli families like them. One thing is for sure: We cannot ignore the tens of thousands of young American Jews who would have gone to Israel during the years of the pandemic. The impact of these lost opportunities will reverberate for decades to come.

With all that is facing Israel and American Jewry at this moment, it seems daunting to take on the issue of the pandemic’s impact on the relationship between them, but we can take inspiration from our Jewish heritage. A famous story in the Talmud tells of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai who was trapped in Jerusalem under Roman siege. He begged his nephew, the rebel Abba Sikra, to find a way for him to get out of the city, so he can do something to save the Jewish people. “Perhaps I can save a little,” he tells him. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai ends up convincing the Roman emperor to allow him to keep the town of Yavne as a safe haven for rabbinic scholars, and through Yavne a new model of post-Temple rabbinic Judaism was built.

We are under siege by COVID-19 right now. Let us figure out how to be more like Yohanan ben Zakkai, whose efforts to save a little ended up birthing newfound resilience and creativity for the future.

The writer is director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) William Petschek Contemporary Jewish Life Department.