Strong identity makes for success

Barack Obama's election may improve the connection between Israel and American Jews.

obama wins 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
obama wins 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
In the introduction to his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama writes, with some self irony, "Why should people want to vote for a person with such a funny name as 'Obama'?" Two and a half years ago, when I received a request from a group of Chicago Jewish community leaders to meet with a young, promising senator who was visiting Israel for his first time, I hesitated. Not only was my schedule crammed for the day, but, moreover, who in Israel at the time had heard of this unknown senator with the unusual name of Obama? It was already Friday afternoon, yet I decided all the same to go to Jerusalem to meet Obama, who was accompanied by a select group of leaders from the JUF/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. Three young members of the Ethiopian community were also invited to that meeting. I immediately grasped that my decision to come was the right one. I was captivated by Obama's charm; he was an intent listener with an inquisitive mind hungry to learn everything about Israel, in general, and Israel as a country of immigrants, in particular. "This man will go far," one of my Jewish friends from Chicago whispered to me. I looked at the young senator while he was concentrated in conversation with one of the young Ethiopian women, who was telling him the story of her family's aliya through the deserts of Sudan, their absorption in Israel and her studies at the university. I sensed that sitting before me was a man of uncommon singularity and determination: here was a talented young person who took a lofty long term view, an up and coming leader who had a great future in store for him. MORE THAN two and a half years passed, and Barack Obama did go on to make history. While there are Jews, both in the US and here in Israel who are concerned about Obama, mainly because he is unknown, one thing is for certain: his election formally ushers the next generation. Along with many of the political implications of the election, the American people have accepted and embraced a new world order - of text messaging, Facebook, chat rooms, globalization, universalism, one in which your ethnic or religious background is not only no longer an impediment but is respected as part of your unique identity. This is a watershed for Diaspora Jewry. Historically, the incentive for assimilation was to shed one's religious background to advance socially and politically. Today in America that is no longer necessary. A strong identity is fully compatible with success. This is a huge opportunity to seize on. Indeed the Jewish Agency has had an increasingly important role in connecting the Jewish people, and particularly the next generation, to their identity, with Israel at the center. It is building and strengthening this connection to Israel that the Jewish Agency views as its broader goal in its work in North America. For 60 years it has been bringing Jews to Israel - over three million newcomers since the state's inception. But the days of mass rescue of Jews, such as that from the Soviet Union in the 1990s, are over. While we are committed to encouraging every Jew who wants to make Israel their home, we also must engage and bring an understanding of Israel to those young adults who choose not to move here. At the very least, such a bond encourages positive personal identification with Israel and Judaism. And this connection will reduce the potential of assimilation in the next generation. We help build this connectedness to Israel through the more than 120 Israeli teachers the Jewish Agency recruits and assists in serving as educators in day schools for two or three years, and by the record 1,500 Israeli young adults we brought this summer to serve as counselors in Jewish camps, which are an important focus for informal education. Connection is further strengthened by dozens of young Israeli volunteers who serve in communities and on college campuses all across North America through the sponsorship of the Jewish Agency. The sense of connectedness continues after high school, as we encourage teens and young adults to make Israel an important part of their lives, through travel and study abroad. We build on the increased interest in Israel travel, much of which has come through the outstanding work of Birthright Israel (of which we are a funding partner). We offer Jewish young adults - before, during or after college - opportunities to study and live in Israel: from two-week volunteer programs, to semester and year-long study and specialized internship programs in the framework of MASA, a joint project of the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency, all of which give young adults abroad a significant life-experience in Israel. In this context we are filling the growing demand for a "gap year" abroad. Our goal is that one in every five Jews between the ages 18 and 30 will have spent a semester or year in Israel. Some of these young people will decide to make Israel their home; others will return to their communities as Jews, more strongly committed to Judaism and to Israel. Forging this connectedness with Israel - particularly by offering young adults a significant experience of living in Israel during their formative years - must be at the heart of the work we do. Who knows, perhaps some day the president of the United States will have volunteered in a development town or studied for a year at university in Israel. The writer is chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.