Every spring, Jewish people across the United States and around the world sit at a table with their friends and family to retell the story of our exodus from Egypt. The first leg of our journey back in time begins with the “Ma Nishtana” (“What has changed?”), also known as the Four Questions.
As we prepare to retell the story of the liberation of the Israelites and the birth of the Jewish people, it is also worth exploring the current state of our Tribe. This Passover, I have four slightly different questions for the American Jewish community.
These are the four major questions that are worth asking:
1. How can we increase young American Jews’ interest in Jewish life and Israel?
If you just read the headlines, it might seem that engagement is on the decline and anti-Israel activities are expanding. But the sky isn’t exactly falling.
One thing we do know is that it takes a transformative Israel experience with a lasting impact for Jewish young adults to reestablish, or even establish for the first time, their personal connections to the Jewish people and to Israel – to discover the Tribe.
Now, I am not talking about a single event, happening, or “aha” moment. Though for some it may only take one spark to reignite the Jewish fire inside. I’m not talking about the classic structure of organized Israel trips that include a bus tour of the country’s sites like Masada and Yad Vashem, meeting Israelis, learning to count to 10 in Hebrew and stuffing your face with more hummus and falafel than you ever thought possible.
These are clearly cornerstones to a young Diaspora Jew’s introduction to Israel – the state, the land and the people. However, the personal moments, conversations and observations enabled by a long-term Israel experience are the lasting connections that help our young people realize they are part of something bigger than themselves – Am Yisrael.
I’m talking about your first trip to an Israeli mall, when you see the clothing and accessories covered in Stars of David instead of crosses. The grandmotherly women you encounter on the bus that offers unsolicited life advice and a bite of their snacks as if you were their own grandchild.
The way in which everyone wishes you “Shana Tova” in the fall, not because they’re religious or on the way to synagogue, but because it’s as natural as wishing someone “Happy Holidays” in the winter in America.
These are the local Israeli moments that stay with young Jews as they go back home and reflect on their experience and newfound connection to Israel and their Jewish identities. They are what make that connection durable.
2. How do we empower our students to authentically change the Israel conversation on college campuses across the country?
Young Jews who spend substantial amounts of time living in Israel are much more equipped to deal with the often hostile anti-Israel rhetoric and activities on campus. Having spent significant time in Israel, they know more about what’s happening (and has happened) on the ground. As such, they are not only able to take part in discussions and debates, but also have the knowledge and tools to change the tone and content of the conversations.
By bringing their own Israel stories and experience into campus dialogue, these students have the power to change a combative debate into a personal conversation. Having a trove of deeply personal experiences on the ground in Israel allows individuals to speak more knowledgeably and comfortably about Israel and its politics.
Spending significant time in Israel also enables young Jews to better differentiate between legitimate criticism and uninformed, misguided hatred. Rather than feeding into the entrenched, polarizing propaganda war, these students are empowered to respectfully confront dissenting viewpoints. They can go beyond traditional hasbara (public diplomacy) efforts and pro-Israel talking points to have nuanced and intellectual conversations about the reality of the challenges facing the State of Israel, its leadership and its people.
3. What will the US Jewish community’s professional and lay leadership look like in 10 years?
With the number of unaffiliated Jews in America on the rise, one might think that the American Jewish community’s professional and lay leadership is shrinking or narrowing. However, the pipeline is actually expanding. One key indicator of young Jews who remain engaged and take on leadership roles in Jewish life are those who have spent an extended amount of time in Israel.
The variety of opportunities to spend meaningful time in Israel has consistently grown over the past several years. Today, there are more options available than ever before for young people to experience Israel, whether for days, weeks, months, or an entire year.
In 10 years, the majority of Jewish adults in the United States will have participated in an immersive Israel experience. We are talking about an unprecedented reality for the American Jewish community.
Throughout my and my American colleague’s meetings with our numerous Jewish communal partners, from Jewish Federations to Hillels to synagogues and beyond, it becomes more and more apparent that alumni of immersive Israel experiences, particularly those who have spent between five to 12 months in Israel, are overrepresented in the Jewish professional world. They are everywhere, in every organization, and they are the future leaders of the Jewish community.
As a result, they are and will continue to be more determined to connect Israel to all aspects of Jewish life. More than anything, they will make Israel travel an integral part of Jewish life and Jewish experiences. That, my friends, is revolutionary.
In a decade, these same young leaders will hold influential positions, whether in the Jewish world, business world, the philanthropic world and beyond. They will be the ones calling the shots and making important decisions. To have their Israel stories to tell and an unforgettable experience to look back on will mold these discussions and decisions before they even begin.
4. Yalla, nu, when are you coming?
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.