Inspiring Jewish identity: politics is not the answer

Guy Gelbart

In June 2010 Peter Beinart published his famous article in The New York Review of Books, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” in which he concludes that young American Jews have checked their Zionism at the door of liberalism. Based on Beinart’s assessment, I arrived in the United States expecting to find huge numbers of highly involved non-Zionist Jews. I thought I would encounter thousands of young adults deeply engaged with their Jewish life — attending services, active in their Jewish communities, studying Hebrew and Hebrew texts and creating a new Jewish liberal culture based on the knowledge and values they derive from the Torah. Seven months later, I am still looking for them. While Beinart focused on young American Jews’ political disengagement from Israel, I see a broader challenge. Sadly, it seems that most of our younger generation did not check their Zionism at the door of liberalism but rather checked their Jewishness at the gate of the Global Village. The trend of opposing Israel is just one symptom of a crisis that goes way beyond the political questions of the West Bank and the Israeli -Arab conflict.

When I look at my own Jewish identity I find that, like a good table, it relies on four legs to support it: The religious leg, which in my case, as an Israeli-secular Jew, is the weakest. The Jewish calendar leg, mainly celebrating Jewish holy days. The Hebrew leg: the Hebrew book shelf with the Torah as its heart — the accumulated joint knowledge of the Jewish people. And last but not least, the leg of Israel — connection with the land, the country and the “people of Israel” — the Jewish people worldwide. Looking through this prism, the state of the next generation becomes clear: not only have many young adults lost their connection to Israel as a country and land but most have actually lost their connection with the Jewish people as a whole. Many of them lack basic knowledge of Hebrew or the Hebrew book shelf. The Jewish calendar is being compromised as many young Jews celebrate non-Jewish holy days and in some cases forget to celebrate the Jewish ones.

As a community we have tried nearly every trick in the book to attract back the next generation: we have shortened our services, added attractions; in some cases, we’ve even offered to pay cash just for attending Judaic classes. Much like the famous witch from “Wicked” we have gone out of our way to become “Popular.” But have we gone too far? Did we lose the most critical elements of our Jewish identity? How can we be attractive if we have nothing unique to offer?

One surprising success in bringing young people back to Judaism is the case of Birthright trips to Israel. It is surprising as these trips do not have a religious focus. In contrast to what Beinart describes, they are very supportive of Israel, but mostly they are a 10-day fun trip to Israel. Yet over 60 percent of participants report this trip as a life-changing experience that had a significant positive effect on their Jewish identity, leading them to seek affiliation. Birthright, a joint project of the government of Israel, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Jewish Federations of North America, with more than 300,000 young adults worldwide as alumni, is clearly showing us another way. We should seek to understand the roots of this phenomenon.

The Birthright trip exposes participants to two out of the four “legs” mentioned above: it exposes them to the country of Israel, the land of the Bible, and — more significantly — to the Jewish people. Suddenly these young adults feel they are part of something big, a peoplehood — they are no longer alone! Another effect comes from hearing Hebrew on the street: Hebrew as a thriving rich language, “even the bus driver speaks Hebrew.” Based on this understanding a new program was created — MASA, Hebrew for journey, a long-term experience in Israel of five months to a year with community service and extensive Hebrew classes. This program seems to be even more effective in fostering Jewish identity. The success of these two programs suggests that, contrary to Beinart, the answer does not lie merely with acceptance of criticism of Israeli policies by young American Jews. Instead, it suggests that only through deeper engagement with Israel and deeper knowledge of our revived Hebrew language will Jewish continuity take place. The challenge is huge; Birthright and MASA are only beacons in the night; they cannot be the solution. A real solution will require a deep, long-lasting, community-wide engagement. Facing this challenge requires significant resources in time, money and efforts. Are we up for the challenge? Do we have any other option?

Guy Gelbart is Tucson’s community shaliach (Israeli emissary) and director of the Weintraub Israel Center.

One Response to “Inspiring Jewish identity: politics is not the answer”

  1. Hershel Cohen says:

    Guy,

    With all due respect, I’d like to see evidence to support your claim that Tucson’s young Jewish community lacks a religious element. After all, just as one book is one perspective, a person’s perspective is limited to what they see.

    I think your criteria on what it means to be Jewish is limiting, and we cannot limit our Jewish identity to the where we choose to daven. There were no formal synagogues at the time of the Temple 3000 years ago so we made pilgrimage a few times a year in order to pray… Why then do you insist on specified houses of worship? A minyan is all that is required.

    The reason why synagogues are struggling to capture the younger crowd isn’t because this generation isn’t eagerly wanting to sing, pray, eat, and dance together but rather than we don’t want to be preached to. As you may know, the Reform Movement is structured after the German High Church style. We don’t want to be asked for money, we want to give because it’s just. We don’t want to be sung to, we want to sing together.

    I do agree with you that Birthright and MASA are options that have proven efficacy and statistical data to support that efficacy. But investing in birthright is not the only option, nor is it the most effective. If you want to invest, invest locally. Flying young Jews out to Israel absolutely creates a lasting bond as a people, but not necessarily as a nation or congregation, let alone a community.

    To that end, Hillel is an answer. Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life provides a community space where young students, Jew and Gentile, can dine over a kosher meal together, discuss what Maimonides would think of Sartre, Nietzsche, Camus, or Brittany Spears. It’s a place where one can discuss strategies for dealing with the sometimes-aggressive Proselytizers, both spiritual, and political. Hillel is the place to go for Shabbos, a place to meet a new friend.

    Let’s talk numbers, quantitative and qualitative. I have personally signed 2 Kettubbas in my 11 years as a man of the community. One for a couple that met on Birthright, and one that met through Hillel. While the friends I met on Birthright Israel offer a great place to crash on road trips and talk to every so often, the friends I met at Hillel sat next to me in classes.

    I am by no means saying that I didn’t greatly value my birthright trip, but I am absolutely stating that having the local Hillel building on 2nd and Mountain is a much more effective alternative, and it’s one where you can easily see dividends. The pluralism that Hillel provides is the round table of Jewish student identity. As Jews we are judged by our actions. As such, I implore you to follow the footprints rather than merely opening your doors and offering material rewards. I think you might be surprised how many footprints lead you to Hillel.

    -Hershel

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