We can bring Jews back to celebrating their Jewish identity - opinion

We all need to take stock of the enormity of this crisis and focus on the emergency that is Jewish assimilation and denial today.

 PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett addresses the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem last week.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett addresses the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem last week.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Israel’s skies have reopened. While COVID-19 is still out there, it no longer remains a barrier for travel to Israel. It is truly an amazing sight to see the paths and alleyways of the Old City filled with people once again. A collective sigh of relief can be felt in Jerusalem’s busy cafes, previously shuttered gift shops and once empty hotels booked with families, politicians and group missions.

In this first month of relaxed travel restrictions we have already welcomed the Conference of Presidents mission, a bipartisan congressional AIPAC delegation, the governor of Connecticut and his trade mission, and the Jewish Agency Board of Governors meetings.

Along with the return of groups such as these to Israel, we find ourselves returning to an all-too familiar round of debate and criticism, lobbying and advocacy. The past two years should have served as a wake-up call, a collective opportunity to reflect, to learn and to change. We may be reuniting, but we should not be going back to business as usual. Herein lies the problem.

Though it comes out of concern for the Jewish people, the passionate debate and lobbying taking place among lay leaders is not how we need to be demonstrating leadership today. We are making a dangerous mistake if we haven’t paused long enough to contend with the new reality: Well over half of the world’s Jewish population just isn’t listening.

It feels in many ways like the world stopped during COVID-19, but it didn’t. During the past few years synagogue affiliation and participation have plummeted, while digital engagement has, of course, skyrocketed. It is abundantly clear to any Jewish leader who has spent time perusing the 2021 Pew study that the younger the generation the less Jews are affiliated.

 THEN-PRIME minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the AIPAC Conference in Washington in 2018. (credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO) THEN-PRIME minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the AIPAC Conference in Washington in 2018. (credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)

When passionate Jewish leaders present themselves as advocates on behalf of American Jewry none are actually qualified to make that claim. The overwhelming majority of American Jews are not Orthodox, Conservative or Reform. They are, in fact, unaffiliated, disconnected and sadly, disinterested. It’s a crisis that is not exclusively American and it is over this frightening trend that we must unite to seek new solutions.

I do not dispute that we need to find ways to hear and see one another, respect each other’s differences and communicate, to find the best way to work together as a people; however, reality dictates a sense of urgency, because we are currently in a fight for our very survival as a Jewish people.

That may seem like a radical statement, but consider this: One-third of American Jews – of any age – do not consider Judaism to be their religion. They identify as Jews, but choose not to identify in any way with Judaism. So before we engage in debate, we need these disassociated Jews to know the beauty of Judaism, the beauty of Israel and understand why it should matter to them.

Israel, long the source of Jewish pride, has alarmingly become a reason for many to shy away from one’s Jewish identity. Ill-equipped to deal with antisemitic and anti-Israel tropes of being called oppressor, many young Jews respond by either hiding their identity, or worse, joining anti-Israel and antisemitic groups themselves, an alarming trend that is growing in numbers.

We all need to take stock of the enormity of this crisis and focus on the emergency that is Jewish assimilation and denial today. Reality dictates taking a step back from the granular pre-COVID-19 arguments to find new, disruptive solutions to reach Jews and connect them to Jewish identity – and to the Jewish people.

I have already written much about the damage done to the Diaspora-Israel relationship. Rather than go back, I suggest we start fresh and seize the digital age moment as an opportunity to learn, adapt and change. As we engage in new online strategies at Aish, we have encountered interest in debunking Jewish myths. For example, a video we created addresses the mistaken notion that Jews with tattoos may not be buried in a Jewish cemetery. This type of entertaining, creative – and perhaps slightly irreverent – content, is meeting people where they are. The response is tremendous.

As we invest the time, resources, talent and energy into creating compelling and relevant Jewish content for online platforms where our future Jewish leaders spend their time, Meta (Facebook and Instagram) recently changed its advertising policy to disallow targeting ads towards value-based or interest groups. This means stopping ads that target a specific religion or religious group, including Jews.

This policy has tremendous ramifications for every Jewish organization, mission, religious and lay leader. If the very place where Jewish youth and young adults spend their time is off-limits to Jewish engagement and education efforts, it is an urgent issue that necessitates our immediate and united attention.

Websites that deal with spirituality, meaning and wisdom, such as Chabad.org and Aish.com, are attracting interest. How people look for meaning, community, wisdom and how they express identity is evolving. We need to understand this, to internalize it, and come together with a renewed passion and conviction, as well as a new openness and positivity.

We all know that we’re at our best when we are united. Sadly, history has proven that this happens almost exclusively when tragedy strikes or when we feel attacked. Let’s learn from our time apart, let’s learn from history. Let’s pause the noise and focus on what matters.

We can bring Jews back to celebrating their Jewish identity.

The writer, a rabbi, is CEO of Aish and a member of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors as a representative of the World Zionist Organization.