Is Israel turning off Diaspora Jewry?

American Jews and Israelis are heading in two different directions and the divide is growing.

WILL THE bonds with the Diaspora break?  (photo credit: REUTERS)
WILL THE bonds with the Diaspora break?
(photo credit: REUTERS)
That’s the question that new head of the Jewish Agency, Yitzhak Herzog discussed with US Federation leaders recently, and that’s what Ronald Lauder lamented on the pages of the New York Times, among the cries of other Jewish leaders. They point fingers at the Nation-State Law, Israeli support for Trump, the lack of egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel and numerous other issues, for discouraging Diaspora Jewish support of Israel.
While these are all true to some degree, this is a distorted picture of a more nuanced reality.
First, it’s not a crisis with Diaspora Jewry. Among the Orthodox, Israel support is as strong as ever. Outside the United States, the vast majority of Jews are members of Orthodox congregations, even if they aren’t fully observant. The claim of the leaders of the American liberal movements that they represent Diaspora Jewry is disingenuous. In fact, their membership numbers have dropped precipitously in the past decades. Today in the US, the Pew Study reported that just 11% of American Jews are members of Conservative congregations and 14% Reform. 50% are not affiliated. 25% of US Jews are either Orthodox or traditional and attend Chabad. Today the liberal movements represent just 25% of American Jewry and a much smaller percentage outside the US.
Second, the real issue isn’t that Jews are drifting away from Israel. It’s that Jews are drifting away from Judaism. And if Judaism isn’t important to you, Israel won’t be. Two weeks ago at a conclave of national Jewish student leaders on campus, I asked them about what they think of these hot issues. What are the average student’s thoughts on the Nation-State Law, the Kotel?
“Nothing,” they said. “Most kids haven’t even heard of these questions.”
Some 40 to 50 years ago, American Jews were passionate about Israel and Judaism. Everyone had a grandmother who kept kosher and personally knew a Holocaust survivor. The community was galvanized by the plight of Soviet Jewry. Even though antisemitism was shrinking in the post-world war era, memories of quotas in Harvard, covenants that banned Jews from buying homes were fresh. Even Jews with a low Jewish literacy were engaged in Jewish life.
Today, external threats aren’t pushing anyone to consider their Jewish identity. Memories of the Holocaust are fading, Grandma is not called Bubbe, Soviet Jews are no longer oppressed and you can get into any country club. Jews know much less about their heritage and are much less educated than previous generations – and they’re starting to just not care anymore.
At the same time that young Americans are drifting away, Israeli Jews are becoming more and more connected with Judaism. Some 30% of Israelis are Shabbat observant and over 60% eat only kosher – three times the number of Americans. In the US, for many Jews their involvement it may be a pilgrimage to services on Yom Kippur for a few hours. In Israel, Judaism is woven into the fabric of the society.
Just take a look at Israeli TVs political satire show Gav Ha’uma, where host Lior Schleien kibbitzes with religious Knesset members about building the Third Temple. Or the Israel version of The Voice, where haredi singers compete with aspiring rock stars.
American Jews and Israelis are heading in two different directions and the divide is growing.
So no, it’s not Israeli politics that’s turning people off. It’s not the Kotel, the peace process, or the Nation-State Law. Let’s be honest. Liberal Jewish leaders use that narrative simply so they can push their agenda in Israel, where the membership does not rise even to 1%. It’s really the lack of Jewish education and identity that’s disenfranchising young American Jews.
Yes, we can take the sexier road and lament the haredim, protest the “occupation” and claim that this is driving Jews away from Israel. While it may be true for a small percentage, these issues are simply not on the radar for the vast majority. Because Judaism isn’t. As a veteran Birthright tour guide told me, “Years ago participants had a modicum of Jewish knowledge. Now we are seeing a marked changed. Many of those coming know almost nothing about Judaism.”
To strengthen the support for Israel, we would have to start with bolstering Jewish education. With Hebrew School attendance down and millennials seeing little relevance of Judaism or of the Jewish homeland, in their lives, there will inevitably be a lack of commitment to Israel.
Let’s tackle the real issue together. Let’s create more avenues for Jewish education, add to programs like Birthright and Masa that engage Jews with an Israel interwoven with Judaism. Let’s make Jewish education a top communal priority. Let’s raise Jewish awareness to college students, millennials and families with programs that are inspiring. Let’s show them a Judaism and love for Israel that aren’t dependent on outside oppression or negativity.
It’s time for Jewish leaders to be more responsible. Please don’t exaggerate a crisis between Israel and Diaspora Jewry just to advance an agenda. Instead, work to promote Judaism and tackle the real issues facing our nation.
The writer is president of the
Rabbinical Council of Orange
County California. [email protected]