Can Israeli Culture Save Jewish Philanthropy?

Photo by Amos Gil, CC BY 2.5, Piki Wiki Israel

By Adam Scott Bellos

Over the past year there has been a spate of articles discussing how progressive and/or young American Jews, exasperated with the rightward turn of the Israeli government were reconsidering support for the country. In response many Israeli commentators have advised Jewish American donors to give up their exceptionalism and respect Israel’s sovereignty, a demand that reflects wider Israeli opinion. The idea that today’s economically mature State of Israel, classified by the World Bank as a ‘high-income country’ since 1987, still needs the American Jewish community’s help is somewhat far-fetched. The reality is that while contributing to Israel may feel like a worthy mitzvah to many American Jews, for Israelis it is something that was once needed and appreciated but now looks paternalistic when it comes with strings attached. What’s more, it highlights the unsustainability of the Diaspora’s own trajectory.

Once a source of unity for the community, support for Israel’s defense has instead become a growing source of division. This however is no more than a symptom of a deeper problem. Simply put, the communal life, culture, and cohesion of the American Jewish community is declining to the point of existential crisis. Alarm bells should be going off among professionals and philanthropists across the American Jewish nonprofit world. These organizations exist in a symbiosis with the community, which serves as both their main consumer and biggest benefactor. Without a cohesive American Jewish community, their very purpose ceases to exist.

There is, of course, a way to fight this threat. It requires a reimagining of the relationship between the American Jewish community and the flourishing Hebrew culture that exists in Israel. By choosing from the abundance that Israel has to offer, Jewish communal institutions in North America might be able to save themselves from drift and irrelevance. That is because for all the ‘tribal’ divisions that dominate the headlines coming out of Israel today, even its most secular Jews have been far more successful than their overseas peers in preserving and integrating their Jewishness with their modernity for the 21st century. Mainstream Israeli identity is a seamless, organic blend, and the compelling culture that springs from it is a resource that Jews from all over the world can draw on to find the optimum path between ghettoization and assimilation.

The most glaringly visible link between identity, culture, and communal survival is the numbers. Today, Israel and North America make up 85% of the population of world Jewry, with a relatively even split between them, according to a 2013 Pew study. Yet between assimilation, migration, and natural increase, Israel is on course to become the dominant pole of the Jewish world. Pew estimates that by 2050, 51% of the world’s Jews will be in Israel and only 38% in the United States. And at the rate things are going it is fair to suggest that only a fraction of those self-identifying in the U.S. will play any part at all in Jewish communal life.

Not long after its massive expansion through immigration from a Russian Empire that seemed bent on decimating its Jews through pogroms, the American Jewish community of the early 20th century embraced a role as Eretz Yisrael’s chief external supporter and defender. Meanwhile, at exactly the same time, the Jews of Palestine committed themselves to developing a uniquely Hebrew communal culture, one that drew upon a wide variety of Jewish traditions in building a uniquely modern approach to life. Despite that diversity, Jewish society’s cohesion in Israel has grown and strengthened, while that of the Diaspora has waned.

A 2016 Pew study asked American Jews to identify essential elements of their collective identity. Seventy-three percent of respondents chose memory of the Holocaust, while 42% chose having a sense of humor. Only 28% of respondents answered being part of a Jewish community, and 14% eating traditional Jewish food. Being Jewish in America, it seems, has been reduced to thinking about gas chambers while watching Seinfeld reruns.

The real problem is that American Jewish culture (as opposed to Jewish-flavored American culture) hasn’t advanced much beyond Jack Benny and Isaac Bashevis Singer. It has remained, by and large, the same old Ashkinazi culture brought to America from Europe – only without access to the vast reservoir of culture that the Yiddish language once provided.

So it should be no surprise that communal life seems irrelevant to millennials. There is another way forward, one that means treating Hebrew culture as our own. This isn’t as much of a stretch as it may sound; Hebrew culture in Israel has long been blending American culture into itself, right alongside Moroccan, Russian, Latin American, and Ethiopian culture. Unfortunately, the American Jewish community just hasn’t noticed, because it’s so busy playing rich uncle rather than brother to Israel.

American Jewish philanthropists should take the lead in reorienting American Jews towards Hebrew culture. Jewish organizations must bring Israeli artists and thinkers to America, and not just for one-time lectures that reinforce the sense that Hebrew culture is a foreign visitor. Instead, we need ongoing engagements that not only normalize it among American Jews, but deepen the human relationships that sustain culture alongside formal institutions. Done the right way, Omer Adam and Cafe Shachor Chazak would be as commonly listened to by young American Jews as Beyoncé or Drake, and reruns of Hatufim binged on like Game of Thrones.

Of course none of this will go very far without the Hebrew language. The Diaspora must embrace Hebrew as a living language – not out of religious obligation, but because it will allow the community to join itself to the cultural center of Jewish world. Once young people are excited about engaging with their Jewish identity, we can go from looking drearily at rates of intermarriage and assimilation to active engagement and creative contribution.

This renaissance begins with the first step of recognizing that Israel offers not just a guarantee of physical security for Jews around the world, but of their cultural identity as well.

Adam S. Bellos is the Founder and Executive Chairman of The Israel Innovation Fund (TIIF).