Since 1993 the Jewish Agency has been running a network of summer camps in the former Soviet Union. The Agency describes these camps as “a cultural lifeline to Jewish identity.” These summer camps are supported by several Russian Jewish philanthropists and by Jewish Federations in such cities as Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland and St. Louis. The summer camps are free and (according to the Jewish Agency’s website) are designed “to provide children and youth ages 7-17 with a compelling and fun introduction to Jewish heritage through an up-close and personal experience, including exciting Israel-centered programs and interaction with young, creative counselors from the FSU and Israel.”
Now here’s where this story gets interesting: Many (and perhaps a majority) of the children attending the summer camps have neither Jewish parents nor Jewish grandparents; these campers receive their free summer camping experience because they were fortunate enough to have had a single Jewish great-grandparent. Why? Because a little-known rule of Israel’s Law of Return states that a minor may make aliyah if they immigrate with one parent who has at least one Jewish grandparent. The Jewish Agency’s philosophy is as follows: Judaism was persecuted for 70 years in the FSU. The great assimilation that took place, therefore, was a kind of forced assimilation, and so it’s only fitting to try to redress this situation by reaching out to non-Jewish families who have some affinity to Judaism.
I’m just wondering if the time has come for American Jews to target their own young families who, though not Jewish, would be eligible to make aliyah under the Law of Return. It turns out that there is literally a generation gap between the families who are targeted for Jewish outreach in the former Soviet Union and the families who are targeted for outreach in the United States. In America, outreach generally targets intermarried couples and their children; in the FSU outreach extends another generation to target not only the children of intermarried couples but their grandchildren as well.
Were American Jews to start supporting programs for this extra generation, the Jewish community’s target audience would jump significantly. I contacted the well-respected sociology professor Steven M. Cohen to get approximate numbers. He wrote to me to say that if Jewish outreach extended forward one generation — as it does in the FSU — we would be talking about moving from a target audience of 6+ million to an audience of almost 9 million.
Our sages teach us that Jewish charity starts at home, in one’s own community. With so many Americans struggling financially, many non-Jewish families with one spouse “eligible for Return” might welcome a chance to send their children to a free Jewish summer camp. What if this coming spring Americans read in their local newspapers that any parent with at least one Jewish grandparent could send their children to a free summer camp sponsored by the local Jewish community? My hunch is that thousands of families who have had absolutely no contact with the organized Jewish community would come out of the woodwork to take advantage of this opportunity. And if the campers came back clamoring for more of what they experienced during the summer (more Hebrew songs, more Jewish food, more Shabbat services), encouraging their parents to explore a neighborhood synagogue or Jewish community center, that would be wonderful. But even if this did not happen, the camping experience, with its emphasis on Jewish ethics and values, would make the children better Americans — to the benefit of us all.
Teddy Weinberger, who made aliyah in 1997, writes for several American Jewish newspapers.