How to get Diaspora Jews in touch with Jewish identity, Israel - opinion

Collectively, we have failed in ensuring that this generation is imbued with a strong sense of Jewish identity, without which there is little reason to identify with Israel. 

 TAGLIT-BIRTHRIGHT participants celebrate during the organization’s annual Israel event, at the Jerusalem International Convention Center. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash 90)
TAGLIT-BIRTHRIGHT participants celebrate during the organization’s annual Israel event, at the Jerusalem International Convention Center.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash 90)

2023 is the Gregorian year when we will enter the 75th anniversary of Israel’s rebirth on May 14, 1948. 

1948 was a period that resonated deeply with me as an 11-year-old member of the Zionist youth movement Bnei Akiva. Every Shabbat, at the start of our meeting, our madrichim (leaders) – aged 17 and 18 – would ask us to stand for a minute’s silence to remember those who had given their lives in the War of Independence being fought at that time. Tragically, among the dead were personal friends of our madrichim; a stark contrast to those who form part of the religious bloc in today’s government looking for ways for their 18-year-olds to avoid army service, even in peaceful times. 

Bnei Akiva of 1948 was part of the Mizrachi Party representing the religious and Zionist faction within the newly formed government. Memories of my days in Bnei Akiva include a number of our leaders who left to become founders of Kibbutz Lavi in 1949. Many relinquished their impressive university degrees; and others – already working as lawyers and accountants – gave up their professions to begin a challenging new life of physically reclaiming the land. 

Today, we witness the “successor” to Mizrachi within the new government; it calls itself the Religious Zionist Party but is a far cry from what I remember as the aims and objectives of Mizrachi and the Bnei Akiva of my youth. The blatant racism of today’s leaders of the Religious Zionist Party is nothing short of frightening. The policies to be enforced by the likes of Ben-Gvir, Smotrich and Maoz are disturbing at the very least, and dangerous at the most. The desire to introduce laws that will override the Supreme Court and enable those with a criminal record to become government ministers, plus their desire to change the Law of Return will serve to push Diaspora Jewry farther away from Israel. 

 Religious Zionist leader MK Bezalel Smotrich. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Religious Zionist leader MK Bezalel Smotrich. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Diaspora Jewry is disappearing

What should be of concern to the new government is not only the disenfranchising of the majority of American Jewry (who primarily identify with the Reform and Conservative movements in the US) but the fact that Diaspora Jewry is disappearing through assimilation and intermarriage. With the number of Jews diminishing comes considerably less support for Israel. Unfortunately, this reality appears to be of little concern to the incoming government. Currently, the distribution of ministries is well under way, yet the position of Diaspora affairs minister does not hold any attraction for those still vying for a ministerial post.

In the past, one of the best ways of retaining one’s Jewish identity in the Diaspora was to be a regular synagogue-goer. Sadly, however, there are too few rabbis able to attract the younger generation. There are exceptions, of course. The Chabad movement takes pride of place in making every effort to bring congregants to their synagogues. 

My late husband John and I, prior to our aliyah in1998, had the privilege of attending services at London’s South Hampstead Shul. Its Chabad rabbi, Shlomo Levin, is an outstanding example of what it is to be in the business of outreach. Every Shabbat, he attracted yuppies and never asked how they arrived at the synagogue. We were one of seven couples who volunteered to have synagogue participants come to us for Shabbat lunch. The majority of our guests were the young people whom Rabbi Levin had attracted to his community. It was always a pleasure to sit around our Shabbat table with these bright young folk, where dynamic conversation flowed. 

THE APPLE does not fall far from the tree. Rabbi Levin’s son, Rabbi Baruch Levin, reawakened a dying London suburb community by attracting young couples to come with their children to synagogue every Shabbat, never asking how they arrived.

Today, unless fully observant (or finding a rabbi like those of the Levin family), Diaspora youngsters are not attracted to synagogue services. It should be a priority to find alternative ways of helping the coming generations retain their Jewish identity. Collectively, we have failed in ensuring that this generation is imbued with a strong sense of Jewish identity, without which there is little reason to identify with Israel. 

Over the years, we have recognized that an informed visit to Israel can make all the difference between remaining within the fold and assimilating. Birthright-Taglit has proven to be a success story, as it is an organization in which participants discover their Jewish roots. A recent Pew Research Center publication found that Birthright Israel participants were 58% more likely than their Jewish peers to “feel a lot in common” with Israelis, 54% more likely to “feel a greater sense of belonging to the Jewish people” and – perhaps the most important statistic – participants are 160% more likely to have a Jewish spouse. 

Miriam Adelson, who together with her husband Sheldon, was the prime financial sponsor of Birthright, recently stated that she intends to reduce her financial input because she feels that others should contribute toward the survival of world Jewry. Such a cutback in funding could lead to a reduction in the number of participants. Last year saw 35,000 young Jews visit Israel on the free 10-day trip; but with the possibility of cutbacks in funding, the number of participants would be reduced to 23,500. Charles Bronfman joined Adelson in calling on the wider community to lend support to this project. 

The State of Israel presents a dynamic modern view of what it is to be a Jew. There is no doubt that projects that bring youngsters to Israel have an impact that cannot be replicated in the Diaspora. The Jewish Agency’s MASA programs – offering an Israel experience in the areas in which participants had studied at university – or the youth movements’ one-year programs are meaningful introductions to life here. 

However, there is another dimension that has been neglected hitherto, namely Israel’s Foreign Ministry. Under the previous 12 year “reign” of Netanyahu, the Foreign Ministry budget was cut considerably, with a number of embassies closed down, thus contributing to the ministry’s losing a number of dynamic diplomats.

Israel should be taking on significant responsibility in addressing the loss of Jews in the Diaspora. If the synagogues are not attracting young people, perhaps the embassies could consider providing outreach to Diaspora Jewry’s younger generation. 

The Talmud tells us “All Jews are responsible for each other.” With Israel today being home to the largest number of Jews in the world, surely the time has come for the one Jewish state to reach out – in the most constructive way – and encourage Jews in the Diaspora to remain Jewish. For sure, it would be more welcome than the current alienation experienced by far too many. 

The writer is chair of Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association (IBCA). The views expressed are hers alone.