Israel Education and the Transformation of the American Jew

by David Bernstein

About five years ago, I attended a panel discussion on Jewish identity with an Argentinian Jewish friend. “It was great,” he said. “But it’s two days before Yom Ha’atzmaut, and there was not a single mention of Israel’s birthday, no balloons, no music, nothing!”

This brought home to me a disturbing reality: the American Jewish community, while politically supportive of Israel, was one of the least connected diaspora Jewish communities to the Jewish state. Many active American Jews spoke little if any Hebrew, knew nothing of Israeli music, and rarely interacted with Israelis. American Jewry at the turn of the 21st century was very low in Zionist zeitgeist.

In the past several weeks, eJewish Philanthropy has hosted an important discussion on the ascending field of Israel education. Lisa Eisen and Chip Edelsberg tell us that “today’s field of Israel education is … emerging from its nascent stage with the possibility of becoming a fundamental element of Jewish education and Jewish identity formation.” These two professional leaders from prominent foundations set ambitious goals for the next seven years, including: Every B’nai Mitzvah will be able to articulate the place of Israel in his or her Jewish story; double the number Jewish teens will travel to Israel each year and be conversational in modern Hebrew by the time they graduate; and Jewish institutions will add 1,000 skilled Israel educators to their rosters.

This vision for Israel education goes much further than instituting a new pedagogical framework, and implies a larger transformation of American Jewish identity. The bigger project, not limited to educating youth, is to develop a new archetypal American Jew, one better versed in and emotionally closer to Israel and Israelis and, equally important, more conscious of national identity. If it succeeds, my Argentinian friend will someday encounter a very different, more Zionist American Jewish community.

Such a transformation will not be easy because there are good reasons American Jews are less Zionist than other diaspora Jews. Unlike most other diaspora Jews, American Jews were invited to be full participants in American society, with all the attendant benefits and protections of citizenship. Most other diaspora Jews had no such opportunities and consequently felt less at home in their adopted countries and more connected to Israel. For most American Jews, the Pesach Seder’s penultimate refrain “Next Year in Jerusalem” constituted a mere symbolic nod to tradition; for many other diaspora Jews, it presented a genuine alternative to life in the diaspora.

American citizenship, however, came at a cost – immigrant groups were expected to give up a measure of national pride as the price of admission. There was an unspoken understanding that immigrants could identify publicly on a religious, but not on an ethnic basis with their country of origin. When the State of Israel came into existence, that social bargain still obtained, and Jews who supported Israel were vulnerable to the charge of “dual loyalty.”

Out of self-interest, American Jewry organized itself around religious identity, which primarily took the form of synagogue involvement, and downplayed the national, ethnic and cultural aspects of Jewish life.

In the second half of the 20th century, with the civil rights movement in full gear, the melting pot model gave way to a new multicultural ideal that allows and even encourages ethnic communities to identify along national and ethnic lines. The specter of the dual loyalty charge – the few remaining detractors notwithstanding – lost much of its punch. Coinciding with changes to America pluralism were Israel’s startling triumphs in 1967 and Entebbe, sparking a surge of Jewish pride worldwide.

American Jews now had the opportunity to proudly express their identification with Israel without fear that their status would be compromised.

Yet American Jews didn’t fully embrace this newfound opportunity. Until recently, Israel was an afterthought in most Jewish educational settings. Jewish education was primarily an exercise in Bar Mitzvah preparation. Young American Jews – even those with a significant Jewish background – still tend to see Judaism in exclusively religious terms and themselves as adherents of a religion rather than members of a nation. A mother of a recent Jewish day school graduate confided in me that her daughter told her that while she’s having a great time studying in Israel, she’s not sure “why a religion needs a country.” Unfortunately, such sentiment is not uncommon, and exposes a poverty in American Jewish self-understanding that, in turn, precludes a meaningful relationship with Israel.

The first step then in ratcheting up the Israel temperature of American Jewry must be to impart a new vocabulary of Jewishness that places a premium on Jewish nationhood equal to that of religious tradition. A central tenet of Jewish education should be Rabbi David Hartman’s avowal that “Pesach negates the idea that the ultimate purpose of being Jewish can be realized by an individual’s “leap of faith” or by fulfilling the commandments at Sinai … I must first identify with my people’s struggle for freedom and security before I can pledge covenantal allegiance to God at Sinai.” In Hartman’s conception, peoplehood precedes religious identity.

In order for American Jews to feel closer to Israel, they must first see themselves as a nation, which itself requires a major shift in educational priorities.

To be sure, American Jews have made progress in some important respects. Thanks to Birthright, for the first time more young Jews have been to Israel than have their parents. Israel education is on the map. Jewish and Israel advocacy organizations have expanded the zone of security for Jews, making it easier for engaged American Jews to be unabashed in devotion to the Jewish state.

In order to make further progress, we’ll need:

  • More education for Jewish professionals on Jewish identity and Israel (such as the Shalom Hartman Institute’s iEngage curriculum)
  • A shift in Jewish educational priorities emphasizing national consciousness along with connection to Israel
  • A greater emphasis in synagogue life on promoting a strong connection to Israel

The real test in the coming years will be whether those most involved in Jewish organizational life and Israel-related institutions (regardless of political ideology) will be able to articulate their own connection to Israel and will become more literate in Israeli culture. In ten years, will significantly more attendees at the ever growing AIPAC Policy Conference speak Hebrew and be able to cite their favorite Israeli pop artist or poet? Will Israel be a part of not only what we believe but of who we are?

Next Year in Jerusalem!

David Bernstein is Executive Director of The David Project.