How do we heal the split between American Jewry and Israel?

ISRAELI FLAGS at an event in New York City (photo credit: REUTERS)
ISRAELI FLAGS at an event in New York City
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In his recently published book, We Stand Divided, Dr. Daniel Gordis made an important contribution to the ongoing discourse about how to heal the split between American Jewry and Israel. While Gordis is insightful in examining the differences between Israeli and American Jews in worldview and political culture, he makes a major oversight. The American Jews he writes about only comprise some 30% of the US community: those who are actively involved in the classical Jewish establishment. These American Jews are members of the Reform and Conservative synagogues and fill the boardrooms of Federations and the alphabet soup of US Jewish groups. While these organizations have made major contributions to Israel and have been the backbone of the US Jewish establishment, the other two-thirds of US Jewry, who stand at opposite pillars of the community, received little scrutiny or concern.
While Gordis points out tiny groups like IfNotNow, whose total membership would be hard-pressed to fill the basketball courts at most JCCs, he ignores the other demographics.
Today, beyond the establishment-affiliated Jews are two other segments of similar size. On one end are what’s dubbed in demography the “nones.” These are Jews who feel a sense of identification but are not actively involved in community life.
On the other end stands the Orthodox community and Chabad. The Orthodox remain highly committed to Israel and are flourishing in the US with a successful educational and communal system. The Orthodox live fully observant lives and are, for the most part, retaining their children in their synagogues.
Then there is the new dynamic in US Jewish life where hundreds of thousands of Jews are active in Chabad. Most have strong communal ties, most are not fully observant, yet they lean towards tradition and slowly reconnecting with their heritage.
The strongest area of Chabad growth being amongst students and millennials. In a series of Jewish Federation community studies, a consistent 30% of younger Jews report being involved in Chabad. In a recently published JSwipe survey of some 4,000 millennials – few being Orthodox – more than 50% reported being active in Chabad, with just 4% engaged with Reform, and 2% with J Street. In other words, 25 times as many young American Jews are finding their Jewish niche in Chabad as those who are part of J Street.
Why are young non-Orthodox Jews flocking to Chabad and finding little interest in the liberal end of Judaism with its ideology of tikkun olam? Simple: while those groups are focusing on politics, Chabad is focusing on the inner spiritual lives of millennials. They are teaching Torah while conveying an unconditional commitment to Israel.
Yes, there are a segment of Jewish machers who want Israel to be a copycat of the liberal version of Jewish life they have created in the US. However, the recasting of Judaism as a religion based on tikkun olam is not resonating with the next generation. They are yearning for a Judaism of greater meaning and spiritual depth. And it’s clear they are abandoning their historical liberal affiliations and gravitating to Chabad.
While the issue that Gordis points to – our different perspectives of democracy and pluralism – are divisive for some American Jews, for many others, exposure to the classical teachings of Torah and Judaism are building a link for them to the community. In other words, the real issue today is not the policies of Israel, but the relevance of Judaism to the lives of American Jews.
SADLY, WE are living in a time when most American Jews have no knowledge of the basics of Jewish learning and the richness of tradition. The solution is tried and true: Jewish education. We don’t need more conferences on the “divide,” an International Jewish Congress, or Israel to transform its policies at the whims of liberal US Jewish leaders. We need more teachers of Judaism, more day schools, more programs like Birthright and Masa Israel Journey. It comes down to one simple issue. The more a Jew knows about Judaism, the more that Jew will be connected to Israel.
Yes, there is a certain disillusionment with Israel by mainstream Jewish groups, but it’s mostly coming from its leadership – not the grassroots. And yes, there will always be a small groups of activists who disagree strongly with Israeli policy – that has always been the case. It started with the American Council for Judaism. Then, in the 1970s, Breira appeared. Of late, IfNotNow and J Street are on the scene. That dissent on the Left has been constant and it’s not going to change.
Last year, a few activists from IfNotNow joined a Birthright trip. Planned in advance with PR in place, they ceremonially walked off the buses in protest into the hands of reporters prepped for the dramatic moment. Their numbers are a statistical blip. They will always be a minuscule vocal group but real numbers are lacking.
This premise is seen clearly in Australia, where 80% of Jews have attended Jewish day schools and some 90% of Australian Jews have visited Israel. In the UK, the percentages are a bit lower but trends similar to the Australia. Unlike US Jews, they are much more Jewishly educated. The shul they attend (or choose not to attend) is almost always Orthodox. Their rabbis don’t cast aspersions on Israel. There is no crisis between UK and Australian Jewry and Israel because those communities are more educated and more engaged.
What the UK and Australia teach us is that the divide can be healed, and the key is in Jewish education. The fact that Chabad’s ability to attract 25 times as many millennials to its programs than J Street tells us something profound. Young Jews want to be more connected to Judaism and thirst for Jewish knowledge. Yes, there are the “nones”, and sadly, with poor Jewish education, they will remain on the edge of Jewish life, drifting further afield. But there are many who feel a deep connection to Jewish destiny. Chabad’s success proves that if the potential is cultivated in a positive manner that reaches into the spiritual essence of younger Jews, it will rekindle that bond of their heritage and embolden their support of Israel.
American liberal leaders have been telling Israel it must kowtow to their agenda are a massive division is underway. And while this may be true for some, it’s not for the majority. Israel does not have to change its version of democracy, or revert the Western Wall deal, to rekindle the bond with American Jews.
The divide can be healed, and it’s not going to be easy. At the core of Judaism is the historical connection of every Jew to the homeland of the Jewish people that reaches back to our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Once modern Jews understand that, then their love for Israel will be emboldened. Of course, there will be issues of contention, but they will not overshadow the core of every Jew that is connected intrinsically to their homeland in Eretz Yisrael.
The writer is the president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County, California. He can be reached by email at [email protected]