Jewish Role Models and American Jewry’s Perceptions of Israel

by Dan Hazony

In a recent eJewishPhilanthropy newsletter, there were two articles that unknowingly interconnected large problems with the American Jewish community. Both the articles, A Less Spoken About Angle: The Threat Israel Presents to Jewish Peoplehood by Rabbi Uri Regev and Staying Present: Adult Mentors are Essential to Teens’ Lives and to Effective Jewish Teen Engagement by Deborah Meyer, when read together form a better understanding of the American Jewish young adults’ perception of Israel.

Rabbi Regev’s article takes a very strong attack on what he considers to be an Israel whose “policies on religion and state … undermine that very sense of Jewish peoplehood” and that constantly “discriminates against non-Orthodox rabbis.” While there are many fundamental differences and issues between Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis, the challenge is that the mindset of the average Israeli does not focus on nuances of denominations, but rather on a general religious versus secular divide. The topic of the ‘Women of the Wall’ has been widely publicized over the past few months, and I know a fundamental concern of Rabbi Regev’s for even longer. However, the issue represented only affects a minority of Israeli citizens: those who choose to affiliate with the Reform and Conservative movements. The vast majority of Israeli citizens who do not partake in religious ceremony choose so not because they don’t want to go to an Orthodox synagogue, but rather just because they don’t want to be engaged religiously. This is a large problem for American Jewry as well, except in Israel, assimilation is not as large a problem because of the constant immersion in Jewish peoplehood.

The statistic that 92% of participants in immersive service learning in Israel become more connected to the state and people when learning of issues in Israel is very impressive in its own right, but must be taken in context. The typical participant on one of these programs is looking for a way to do tikkun olam, or improve the world, and expressed an interest in going to Israel. The fact that they see that Israel has problems that need to be overcome allows them to connect to her in an unbelievably personal way. The only thing that this statistic tells us is that Repair the World, who commissioned this study of their programs, is doing a phenomenal job and is an example of how targeted Israel engagement by personal interest is succeeding.

The typical American Jewish young adult will never reach a program like those funded by Repair the World because they do not feel an urge to immerse themselves either in service learning, or in Israel, or neither. When reading Ms. Meyer’s article, she develops a strong theory and proof for why positive adult influence would subsequently positively affect young adults. While her article seems to state the obvious, it is a reality that is often forgotten and is important for us in the Jewish communal world to actively remember. The only point of connection with Israel and Jewish peoplehood for a vast majority of the young and unaffiliated is based on what public statements are being made by communal leaders. When an article appeared about the controversy surrounding Women of the Wall in The New York Times on April 26th, it was one of the few messages that they hear about the Jewish world.

The passion and turmoil expressed in Rabbi Regev’s article is an important conversation to have amongst Jewish leaders and active members of our community. What Ms. Meyer reminded us was that most young Jews don’t have the positive adult Jewish influence that would allow them to have an informed, constructive conversation about the topics at hand. Therefore, the large part of all our target population is only hearing a passionate sound bite that we struggle with on a daily basis, yet is completely detached from their reality. Many issues need to be fixed in Israeli society, but we need to speak about it in a personal way when one is ready. The role models that Ms. Meyer works so hard to train are the ones that should be leading the conversation in smaller groups within our community. Otherwise, it just seems like Jews are always fighting one another with lashon hara, derogatory speech, instead of touting all of the amazing things that Jews and Israel are doing for the world. The only effect that this has is the public perception of a divided Israel – not one that works hard to make the world a better place.

Dan Hazony is the Director of Information Systems at NCSY. He is looking forward to staffing his first Taglit Birthright Israel niche trip – “Israel Give and Tech” – focusing on how Israel uses technology and science to do tikkun olam around the world. He hopes that his 40 under affiliated participants will find their own special connection to Israel and Judaism through this experience.