Crisis, Opportunity and Engaging Birthrighters

By Andrew Fretwell

Moments of crisis often reveal many insights about our Jewish community, if we can decode them properly. What can this “moment,” this conflict in Gaza and swelling tide of global anti-Semitism, teach us about our community here in the United States?

Right now, we can see whether or not we provide a Jewish space where we can safely wrestle with ourselves and one another – specifically about Israel – and grow our ideas and relationships in the process. Our aspirations for how future generations of American Jews relate to Israel will in many ways be determined by the presence of such spaces.

The 265,000 young American Jews who have gone on Taglit-Birthright Israel trips offer an unprecedented opportunity to reinvigorate our community’s culture of reflection and ideation. Right now, they are reading, they are watching, and they are wondering. And thousands more of them will have traveled to Israel this summer, with many witnessing the situation on the ground first-hand. They will have seen war and anti-Semitism, either up close, on their newsfeed, or both. But when they are home, where are they talking, reflecting, and processing? And with whom?

Our ongoing opportunity is to include them in the very conversations that define how we as a community make sense of the world around us and our role within it. And to do that, we need a space in which they can learn, process and address questions with which we may never stop wrestling: How do we balance the safety of our family with that of our neighbors? How/is Israel my home? What is justice? Why be Jewish?

So where does this space actually exist? Historically, according to Ray Oldenberg’s Great Good Place published in 1989, communities have developed “third spaces” distinct from homes and places of work where individuals can socialize and discuss local and global issues within the context of community and friendships.

It’s possible that for many of the Jewish millennials who’ve participated in Taglit-Birthright Israel, their trip bus is the first taste of what a Jewish third space offers. Unfortunately, for too many, it may also be their last. What can we learn from Taglit-Birthright Israel, and how might that inform how we turn the third spaces we have here at home into ones where Birthrighters will naturally gravitate to join in the Jewish conversation, particularly in times like these? How might it help us create new Jewish third spaces?

The Taglit-Birthright Israel bus: Taglit-Birthright Israel models what a “safe space” can look like and what community is about, and exposes participants to facilitated, structured discussions that pierce the surface of questions they will negotiate throughout their lives. Buses become socially sacred communities in which young adults uniquely feel the effects of group experience. It leaves its participants with the same desire to access the social – and even spiritual – value of community.

The Numbers: There are hundreds of thousands of Birthrighters in the United States alone. The sheer quantity of young Jewish adults who share this immersive and thought-provoking experience provides fertile soil for fostering new and meaningful relationships. Birthrighters may not have much in common otherwise, but because of Taglit-Birthright Israel they share at least a baseline frame of reference for Israel and for discussing big, deep issues with other Jews. Common experience is the basis of relationships and Birthright Israel is a uniquely powerful catalyst for drawing once-strangers together.

The Peoplehood Connection: Birthrighters know that Jews live around the world well beyond their hometown and/or campus; that’s nothing new. But the Taglit-Birthright Israel experience translates that abstract notion into a concrete and inspiring reality by dropping them into the navel of the Jewish world. After the trip, “Jewish Peoplehood” isn’t just a term they heard somewhere; it’s the connection and the context that belies the relationships they build with fellow Birthrighters, Israelis and other Jews. Friendships are an end unto themselves, but when that relationship also takes on the dimension of a shared task, or is formed within a larger values-driven context such as the continued vibrancy of Israel and the Jewish community, the relationship can rest on an even stronger foundation.

Let us create welcoming third spaces locally for Birthrighters and their peers, right here in the U.S. Here are three questions every organization should ask itself when looking to create such spaces where conversation about Israel is welcome:

Are we waiting for a crisis?

If creating a space to discuss Israel only rises to the top of your agenda during times of crisis and conflict, it sends a strong message: Israel is there to for us to guard and/or Israel is there to confuse us. What is missing is that Israel is there for us to build (even from afar) and Israel is there to build us: the type of reciprocity that constitutes a positive relationship. Organizations like the iCenter, Makom and Resetting the Table can provide valuable resources in helping your organization do that.

Are we asking people how they feel just to “sell them” on a course of action?

There is a time for action, but we must go through the appropriate stages to reach that point. If we pre-empt people speaking frankly about their own thoughts by presenting our own organization’s stance, we are disguising solicitation to look like conversation, and not engaging in genuine discussion.

Are we providing a framework for outlets from our conversations?

On the flip side, strong feelings often evoke a desire for constructive action. Harnessing the energy generated by a meaningful conversation is a real opportunity. It may make sense to build on initial conversations by offering to host future discussions and group learning, giving circles, service projects, or cultural events. Providing these outlets or allowing young adults to decide how to pursue these outlets are key to attaching meaning and depth to what you offer.

Though the flames are now tapering momentarily, this summer has revealed old and new treacheries against Israel and Jews around the world. These are crises that aren’t going away soon and those who create constructive conversations around Israel within authentic third spaces will find Jewish millennials ready and willing to provide a light in those dark days ahead.

Andrew Fretwell is the New York Community Activator for NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation.