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Israel Is Not Enough

Israel Is Not Enough

For Jewish continuity, trips to Israel need real Jewish content.


In reading the Jerusalem Post editorial “Jewish Continuity? Visit Israel”, I was struck by the focus, especially the closing sentence: “To experience the tremendous achievements, and to be awed by the challenges of sovereignty in this historic sliver of land – adds up to a powerful incentive to care about staying Jewish.”

I think we are distracted sometimes by numbers, and this is true for the numbers participating in Israel programs. Quantity is important and, in the example of Birthright, impressive. However, numbers alone will not create the impact on future generations (stronger connections to the Jewish community, personal Jewish growth) for which we are striving.

To quote Moses Montefiore: “The danger of counting Jews is that if they believed, even for a moment, that there is strength in numbers, the Jewish people would long ago have given way to despair. To win the Jewish battle – the battle of the spirit, the victory of heart, mind and soul – you do not need numbers. You need dedication, commitment, study, prayer, vision, courage, ideals, hope.”

Related Article: Jewish Failure?

The last sentence of the editorial really gets to the heart of our current dilemma: How do we strengthen Jewish identity, thereby ensuring Jewish continuity? It is an assertion focused wholly on the effect of a visit to Israel and, how it stimulates “care about staying Jewish.”

Jewish content must imbue the experience from the start.

There is no doubt that a visit is a powerful experience and influences change in how some see themselves as Jews. But an overemphasis on the achievements and challenges of the state is missing something existential to the meaning of being Jewish. In other words, visiting Israel is not enough to ensure Jewish continuity.

Natan Sharansky, in responding to the claim that an Israeli identity is synonymous with a Jewish one, responded: “This definition of identity grants a bill of divorce to the Jewish people, to the Jewish heritage, to 3,000 years of culture, creativity, prayer, rituals, tradition and everything that is subsumed in the term ‘Judaism.’”

We should be asking ourselves, what is it that makes an Israel experience a Jewish experience, and what is necessary to solidify Jewish identity in a sustainable way?

I would posit that Jewish content must imbue the experience from the start, and flow into follow-up experiences in North America and here.

In a strategic move, the Jewish Agency has declared a shift from its emphasis on aliya to that of strengthening Jewish identity. At a Partnership 2000 conference last summer, Alan Hoffmann, the agency’s director, declared a direct tie between Jewish identity and Jewish content.

Taglit-Birthright Israel has touched on this, and had tremendous success in making an Israel trip a life-cycle event for Diaspora Jews, 18-26. Many Israelis who have participated in the “meeting” component of the trip have been challenged to reexplore what being Israeli – and Jewish – means.

Although praising birthright, Gary Rosenblatt pointed out in the Jewish Week following Len Saxe’s study last year that “the birthright trip appeared to have little influence on the participants’ ‘religious observance, communal involvement and on their feelings of connection to Jewish customs and traditions and to their local Jewish community, which were about the same as nonparticipants.’”

A recent report sponsored by the Avi Chai Foundation, which looked at new Jewish leadership in their 20s and 30s within and outside the establishment reveals an important trend: Those younger, non-establishment leaders (representing a growing number of Jews), when asked about issues relating to continuity, responded as follows: 33 percent were “very worried/bothered” that young Jews were not interested in Jewish life, 17% were “very worried/ bothered” by high intermarriage and 15% were “very worried/ bothered” by Jews distancing themselves from Israel. The relative importance of Israel and the impact of intermarriage in the discussion of Jewish continuity is changing.

If visiting Israel is not enough, then what is? To answer, we need to look again at Jewish content. I asked some Jews – Israeli and North American – gathered at that same Partnership 2000 conference in Jerusalem, to answer the question: “What would you include in Jewish content?”

Without regard to religious orientation (most of those asked considered themselves secular) or place of residence, they had very similar ideas: Jewish ethics and values, Shabbat experience, experiencing Jewish traditions together, Jewish holidays, learning with Jewish texts (Torah, Talmud), history and archeology, tikkun olam projects, a spiritual connection to the Land of Israel, connecting with the Jewish calendar, sharing a common historical and religious destiny, the Hebrew language and ethics that bind us.

It is time we address the question: What are those components and content of an Israel experience that leads one to want to be part of a Jewish community and build his or her Jewish identity? Until we explore this issue in depth, the goal will remain focused on numbers. We are missing an opportunity – maybe our last – to really provide the “transformative experience” needed to plant seeds that encourage further Jewish growth and discovery.

January 15, 2011

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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Anonymous, January 23, 2011 1:26 AM

I want that Jews should know what choice we are making.

Jews seem to intermarry perhaps not because they don't care about Judaism, but because they don't know it to begin with, and because the selection of Jews can be quite limited if one doesn't live in a highly Jewish community. If one goes to Friday or Saturday services alone, as many less observant may regularly or on occasion do, they would hear the same prayers that on their own don't seem to have much value. Also, if the prayers are said in Hebrew, many don't understand any of it. And sorry, but although being there may kind of feel nice, in that situation, it's boring and hardly meaningful. Compared to if one went to another religions service, they'd most likely be taught something inspirational. It was not until I went quite out of my way to take far away classes and read various books and sites like this one, have I learned so much more. Before that, I didn't even know there was much if any more to it, then services. Also most Jewish men I met to date, that were also raised this sad way, were not especially appealing character wise, for the most part. So of course with the above combination, lack of so much, one would be more open to looking at people from other religions too. We need basic and beyond education at each Shul! And it needs to begin early. Years of Sunday school barely touches anything other than how to mindlessly say wrote prayers in a foreign language, without having much of a clue about what is being said. A Catholic friend of mine said that by the time their children finish Sunday school, they know everything about their religion. She was shocked that this is so far from true for the average Jew. This is so sad for us. Since the first place a not so observant / knowledgeable Jew would likely go is Temple, shouldn't that be the place that has a special class(es) for all ages to learn more than reading the Tanach alone? Why don't we do this???

(4) Jeff, January 21, 2011 12:25 AM

Jewish Cohesion

For me, I have been writing for 20 years about the lack of Jewish cohesion that was present 50 years ago and disappeared, which created higher levels of Intermarriage, Jewish poverty, and other social ills affecting Jews.

(3) Maxine Gornish Elkins, January 17, 2011 6:06 AM

Botzer right on target!

Aharon Botzer's Aish HaTorah website article articulates exactly why there is not the JEWISH connection the Birthright trips should be affording it's participants. Could one reason be that the Taglit organization is headed by mostly secular Israelis who have very little knowledge or interest in Judaism? Most of the Birthright trips find many of the participants night clubbing in the evenings, INCLUDING Shabbat. We just this past Shabbes had a friend's son with us who JUST returned this past week from his Birthright trip and said they were in Jerusalem for Shabbat and the trip leaders did not even suggest where to go for a unique Shabbat service experience in The Holy City, so NONE of this group attended any Shabbat service- A lost opportunity- multiply this by tens of thousands. I wonder if Steinhardt/Bronfman are aware of this? Maxine G. Elkins

(2) Fred Steiner, January 17, 2011 4:06 AM

We, as Jews have enough reasons to be proud

Why should we not proud, Show another people of ten million, with record Noble prize. Our achievements in Israel, turning the desert into furtile land and countless of other achievements, Sadly our enemies (our neighbours are jelous on us and provoke wars, we have won all the wars. Why? because they are jelous

(1) jgarbuz, January 16, 2011 9:21 PM

Most US Jewry will intermarry and disappear, so what's to worry?

Other tribal people, such as the Irish, Scots, Germans, etc., take their old homeland for granted, and never give it a second thought. Most US Jews are going to intermarry, and their offspring will no longer be Jews - and so what is the big deal? A Jewish state now exists, and those who want to remain part of Jewish history know where their homeland is, and those who don't care will disappear from the pages of Jewish history. It's an individual choice, and I doubt there is much anyone can do about it, one way or the other.

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