Souvenirs from the Israel Experience

Even with new options of internships in Israel, participants often lament that they felt more Jewish in the Diaspora than they do in Tel Aviv.

by Shayna Rehberg

Facts and figures are flying about, giving us two very different pictures of what’s happening among American Jews.

On the one hand: Birthright celebrates 400,000 participants, three quarters of US Jews have “a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish People,” Jewish pride is at a whopping 94%, and children of intermarriage are increasingly identifying as Jewish.

On the other hand: only 28% of Pew respondents believe that being part of a Jewish community is essential to being Jewish, 80-90% of those who pass through kiruv programs later fall out of Jewish engagement, assimilation rates are soaring, 4 out of 5 Jews in America are intermarrying, and nearly one third of young Jewish adults consider themselves as “having no religion.”

So what are we supposed to believe, and – more importantly – what can those who are passionate about Jewish community do to make a positive difference?

Barry Shrage notes “It wasn’t an overemphasis on Israel that was driving away a generation of young Jews. It was a lack of decent Jewish education, the absence of authentic spirituality, the lack of a serious encounter with Peoplehood … connecting the Birthright generation to Jewish learning, meaning and community is now our greatest opportunity.”

While the classic Israel tour is a great boost to the Israeli economy, we need to offer our young visitors more than dust-collecting trinkets, a hookah pipe, or cool pictures to take home.

How can the Israel experience translate into post-trip communal involvement? Can I recreate the climb up Masada back in Boston? Does a camel ride help me feel Jewish in Portland? What tools, resources, and inspiration are we giving our youth to take home with them that will lead to Jewish living?

For far too many years, the only options have been all or nothing. Either you dive into intensive yeshiva studies for a religious experience, or you pick dates on a kibbutz from dawn to dusk and hang out on the beach every weekend. Even with new options of internships in Israel, participants often lament that they felt more Jewish in the Diaspora than they do in Tel Aviv.

Last summer, Michael Steinhardt announced that he would be launching a Shabbat project as a means by which to encourage young adults to connect to their heritage post-Birthright. In response to his initiative, we inquired of our own alumni to share how their first Shabbat in Israel affected their communal involvement and Jewish identity. Within four days, we received close to 400 letters, some going back a few decades, testifying that their Shabbat experience was the major component of their program that had positively impacted their connection to Jewish community.

As Steinhardt recently asked in an article on the 94 percent, “One-third of Jews in the Millennial generation consider themselves to be ‘Jews of no religion.’ If we resist belonging, what exactly are we proud of?”

Clearly then, Shabbat is one of the most valuable “souvenirs” that Israel program participants can take home with them. The warmth, songs, and conversations of a Shabbat meal are not likely to sit idly on a shelf. As we move forward, trying not to be too entangled in the mess of statistics, trying to ever improve the Israel experience and its potential as a catalyst for communal involvement; let’s ask how each encounter and activity can leave a lasting impression that will foster a desire to belong and connect to Jewish community.

Shayna Rehberg is Director of Development at Livnot U’Lehibanot, and previously worked at the Jewish Federation of San Antonio. She currently resides in Tzfat with her four children.