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.