An elaborate video, projected across three screens, launched the discussion of a new strategic plan at last week’s meeting of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors in Jerusalem. It began strikingly with a scene of two small children painting together. As this captivating image introduced young “Ben and Zoe,” the voice-over aptly described their artistry as “unique and personal, an affirmation of identity.” This brief scene vividly illustrated the power of self-expression. It also resonated with emotional associations evoking nurture, human potential, interconnectedness, beauty, and lasting value.
That was the last time anything was said about art or culture for the next three hours. The video used the impact of words and images to make a point more powerfully than logic or reasoning could do. Then, in the discussion that followed, the potential of creativity and media was utterly ignored in favor of comments about Israel engagement, education, and implementation issues. It’s a serious omission because cultural experiences can do so much to fulfill the Jewish Agency’s purposes.
A document prepared for the meeting describes three gateways to identity: knowing, feeling, and doing. “From the shared experiences with other Jews comes the Jewish identity that is felt in the kishkes,” it explains. “Feeling can be a cultural connection or a deep spiritual bond or both.” An encounter with a film, a song, a book, or a painting can be rich with those feelings. And when culture speaks to the human condition from the particulars of Jewish or Israeli experience, it can encourage precisely the sort of connections that the Jewish Agency is eager to promote. Yet cultural expression plays little role in the organization’s strategy, except perhaps as a tool for educational activities.
Its new strategy rests on three pillars: connections through Israel experiences, positioning educators and leaders as change agents, and promoting social action. The last two appeal to the rational mind, using knowledge and concrete results to awaken a sense of Jewishness. Israel experiences may also involve education and social action, but they offer something more: an intangible, emotional, and sometimes inexpressible response by the participants to the people and the land. That can be literally life-changing, and it can’t be routinized through curricula and training programs.
When attachment to Jews and to Israel comes from the heart more than the mind, it is best reinforced through the heart. After young people return home from an intense experience in Israel, that experience can be crucially strengthened through encounters with music, cinema, literature, and art. That happens not when art is presented as something to learn about, but rather when individuals are encouraged to respond intuitively and personally to creative works.
Other nations with rich cultures know this, and use their cultures as a way to build connections around the world. The Goethe Institute has promoted German language and culture for over 50 years; the Alliance Française encourages interest in the French language and Francophone culture. An Israeli counterpart – an Israel House or perhaps Machon Herzl – would be a source of pride, sustenance, and identity for Jews the world over, strengthening bonds with Israel while at the same time providing a point of entry for interested non-Jews.
The Jewish Agency, rooted both in the Diaspora and in Israel, is ideally positioned to make this idea a reality. In parallel to its Israel experiences, education programs, and the opportunities for social action it offers, a network of Israel Houses could coordinate cultural programs that showcase Israeli and Jewish creativity. They would sustain the feelings of people who have been transformed by visiting Israel, provide a new means for Jews to shape their own identities, and arouse the interest of others as well. If we touch the hearts of the next generation through our shared culture, their hearts will turn to their heritage, their people, and their future.
Bob Goldfarb, the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, is a blogger for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal as well as a regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy.com. He lives in Jerusalem.