Service: The Path Back In to Israel for Young Jews on Their Way Out

By Dr. Max Klau and Rabbi Sid Schwarz

Jennifer (a pseudonym) is a 23 year old American Jew who grew up in a home that equated Zionism with racism. Like many secular, progressive young Americans, she spent her college years immersed in a campus culture that, at best, questioned the current policies of the state of Israel and, at worst, demonized the country as a pariah state with a dubious right to exist. It would be reasonable to count her among the 20% of young American Jews categorized as “Israel-Alienated” in the most recent Pew study of Jewish demographics. This is the growing cohort of rising Jewish adults who express negative sentiments regarding the Jewish state.

So what is she doing in Israel?

Jennifer is a participant on a long-term Israel experience run by Yahel, a five year old organization that brings Jewish young adults from the diaspora (mostly North America) to Israel for an intense year of service. Together with eight fellow participants, Jennifer is living and working in the economically struggling neighborhood of Ramat Eliyahu in the Israeli city of Rishon L’tzion. Together, they spend their days tutoring elementary school students in English, providing homework help, running after school activities, and helping to organize and tend to the community garden. This is not a quick tourist visit; it is an extended and immersive experience involving engagement with some of Israel’s most enduring and important social challenges.

Many in the organized Jewish community would quickly write Jennifer off. The attitudes she shares with her progressive peer group puts her outside the tent of young Jews who we might consider to be positively identified with their Jewish identity. Nor is Jennifer a likely candidate for a Birthright Israel trip. She wasn’t involved in Hillel, and you won’t find her at any upcoming AIPAC conferences. But there was a path that led her to Israel, and that path was service.

Jennifer came to Israel because she is motivated by a desire to serve and to foster positive social change. Like many of her peers, she may believe that government, business, and pretty much every other major institution in western society cannot be trusted, but she believes that individuals can make a difference by stepping up to work on the front lines of creating change. It’s a belief that in recent years has motivated more than 500,000 young people to apply for the less than 90,000 AmeriCorps slots annually in the U.S. It represents a generational trend that is leading growing numbers of progressive Jews to both live and work in urban communities in the United States. This is a generation that would not dream of pursuing social justice by merely writing checks from comfortable, segregated communities in the suburbs. They want to become a part of the communities they aspire to strengthen and support.

Although it was a passion for service that got her on the plane, now that she is in Israel Jennifer is challenged on a daily basis to confront the complexity of Israeli society. Through her service, she is encountering issues of race, gender, economic justice, immigration, and  – of course – the conflict with Palestinians – as they are experienced every day in Ramat Eliyahu and beyond. Equally important, she is meeting the many passionate, committed, and inspiring local activists who are committed to taking on these challenges in their own communities.

It’s an experience that provides a realistic, complex and nuanced understanding of a country that is talked about largely in the abstract during polarized debates back on college campuses in the States. And along with that nuanced and complex understanding emerges a genuine sense of connection.

At this complex moment in Israel-diaspora relations, service is an approach that deserves focused attention. Unprecedented numbers of young Jews are coming of age with deep questions about Israel, and many of them are unlikely to walk through the doors of any institutions in our existing communal infrastructure, like Hillels, AIPAC, or Jewish Federations. However, if we provide Next Gen Jews with ways to come to Israel to live out their values, we may be able to connect them to their Jewish identity in a different way. Next Gen Jews strongly identify as global citizens. Thousands of them travel all over the developing world with dozens of emerging new programs that give them a chance to help at-risk populations. It is critical that we provide such opportunities in Israel as well, and Yahel was created to do just that.

There is a lot of work to be done to unleash the power of Jewish service learning in Israel on a large scale. We need to develop new approaches to marketing and recruitment, as the individuals most likely to be interested in these experiences are likely not reached by existing channels. And we need to find ways to achieve scale without sacrificing quality, as programming that is not grounded in a deep and genuine sense of partnership and collaboration with local communities will turn off the very individuals we seek to turn on. We believe that these challenges are ripe opportunities for innovation, and not insurmountable obstacles that cannot be overcome.

Jennifer’s experience demonstrates that immersive, long term service programs like Yahel can be a way back in for progressive young Jews who are on their way out. It’s an approach with profound relevance to some of the greatest demographic challenges that the Jewish community seeks to address, and it’s time that we give it the attention that it deserves.

Dr. Max Klau is a leadership scholar and consultant who is an alumnus of four different Jewish service programs. Rabbi Sid Schwarz is a senior fellow at Clal. As the founding president of PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, he was one of the early architects of the field of Jewish service learning. Sid first met Max when he was a high school student participating in Panim el Panim. Both now serve on the Board of Yahel: Israel Service Learning.