Op-ed: Spirit of unity will eventually draw young Jews back to Judaism

Op-ed: Spirit of unity will eventually draw young Jews back to Judaism

Op-ed: Spirit of unity will eventually draw young Jews back to Judaism

December 13, 2013

By Samantha Oppenheimer

 

According to a recent study by the ADL, anti-Semitism in America is the lowest it has ever been. Of course this is a good thing.
Of course we want to eradicate anti-Semitism, and racism and bigotry and sexism and homophobia and every other kind of crazy baseless hate. But the effect of this widespread acceptance of, and even appreciation of, Jews in American life has had a sizeable effect on Jewish Identity: 20 percent of American Jews do not identify as religious. In our bright, glittery world of Woody Allen and Drake and hummus and chutzpah, we are liberated of the terrible stigma that has always marked us as other. This should be beautiful, this should be glorious, this should be the stuff of utopian fantasy! And yet.
 
Here I am now with this terrible luxury, this magnificent burden, of choice. I have the ability to choose Judaism, or not to choose it. I am not branded, segregated, or shunned by the circumstances of my birth; I am amazingly, terrifyingly free. For many young American Jews, this means religion-lite, religion in small, calorie-free portions. A brisket sandwich, sure. A little Heineken and hamantaschen when Purim rolls around, no problem. A Friday night service? That’s a bit much, now, giving up some of my Friday night to participate in a tradition I have little connection to or interest in maintaining. Why should I, the wicked son, participate in something arcane and musty and confining? I have no incentive. And therein lies the tragedy.
 
At the 2013 Jewish Federations of North American General Assembly held last month in Israel, I met Jews from Poland, England, France and an array of other places. Places where, I was chagrined to learn, anti-Semitism is not the lowest it has ever been; rather, it is on the rise. Thus the young adults I met from those countries were fighting, still, for the freedom to be Jewish. Fighting! For what so many American Jews give up voluntarily, thoughtlessly, every one an Esau throwing his birthright at a pot of lentils. In an environment of openness and tolerance, where Jews are not held together by the threat of external forces, we must find a concrete way to retain Jewish identity and encourage its continuation.
 
The greatest accomplishment of the General Assembly of 2013 was the ingathering of so many cognizant, clever, and vibrant young Jews: Jews from all across North America as well as the world over, Jews with brilliant, enterprising minds and fresh ideas and well-thought-out opinions derived from formative experiences. We learned so much just from being in the same room with each other. Sharing our beliefs and passions and ideas enriched our sense of Jewishness and of belongingness, which really boils down to being the same thing. Judaism is a way of life built on community, on togetherness, on belonging to something created by individuals and yet greater than any individual. Together, we hold the future of our people in our young, unlined palms, and it is that spirit of unity, and the strength of that unity, which will eventually draw young, apathetic Jews back to Judaism.
 
Samantha Oppenheimer is the daughter of Carla and Scott Oppenheimer and a member of Congregation Beth Shalom. She is currently spending the year on Masa’s Israel Service Fellows program, teaching English at a rehabilitation village for troubled youth, planting and maintaining community gardens for older immigrant communities and various other volunteering placements. She was a member of the Masa Israel delegation to 2013 JFNA General Assembly in Jerusalem along with 50 other emerging Jewish leaders studying, interning and volunteering in Israel. 
 

Balkan Beat Box Concert in Chicago: A Masa Alumna's Review

<div class="masa-blog-title">Balkan Beat Box Concert in Chicago: A Masa Alumna's Review</div>

by Rachel Gutman, Masa Israel Corps alumna
 
It wasn't until I lived in Israel as a Masa Israel Journey participant that I first learned any Israeli music. I hadn't been exposed to it before, I'm sad to say, but this was something my friends were determined to change.
 

Thanksgivukkah Reflections: Modah Ani | I’m Alive!

What to Answer When an Israeli Asks, “Are you Jewish?” - A Guide (to the Perplexed)

<div class="masa-blog-title">What to Answer When an Israeli Asks, “Are you Jewish?” - A Guide (to the Perplexed)</div>

By Jasmine Granas, Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv - Jaffa 2013-2014 participant
 
"Are you Jewish?" As soon as as someone asks me, the exasperation starts to build in my stomach. Sometimes I just want to scream, ‘I don’t know! Stop asking me!’ Am I the only person in the world who doesn't have an immediate answer?
 

Liran Avisar

JPost: Discovering your Jewish identity - it's never too late

JPost: Discovering your Jewish identity - it's never too late

JPost: Discovering your Jewish identity - it's never too late

November 19, 2013

By Allie Freedman 
 
A seemingly innocent question posed by Boglarka Palko's teacher, led the Hungarian teen to embrace the Jewish roots she never knew she had.
"Are you Jewish?"
 
Fourteen-year-old Hungarian Boglarka Palko stared back at her teacher in utter shock. Curious about the teenager’s fiery red hair and Jewish features, the teacher posed the seemingly innocent question — never dreaming that it would transform Palko’s life. She rushed home and immediately asked her parents about the odd remark. Young Palko, who had been raised as a Christian her whole life, was stunned by their answer: yes she was, by law, Jewish.
 
That pivotal moment spurred “an identity crisis," says Palko, now 25. "I was brought up in a primarily Christian environment. I was baptized and went to Catholic school. Suddenly, I find out that I am a Jewish and have this whole new part of me I didn't even know existed."
 
Once her true religious identity was exposed, Palko faced a challenging decision: Judaism or Christianity? Delving into her Jewish roots, she soon discovered her family's deep connection with the religion when her grandfather shared his story with her for the first time. After growing up in the Hungarian countryside, he settled in a Budapest ghetto, where he worked for a labor camp until escaping through an underground movement. He then spent two years in a British detention camp in Cyprus before making his way to Israel.
 
"My grandfather taught me everything I know about Judaism," Palko tells The Jerusalem Post. "He sat me down and told me all about my family's history. He also taught me Hebrew and introduced me to Jewish traditions. Because I had such a strong interest in learning about my Jewish identity, the two of us connected through religion."
 
According to Palko, moving out of the Hungarian countryside saved her grandfather’s life. The rest of her family was sent to Auschwitz. Many of her relatives perished in the gas chambers, including her grandfather’s grandmother, aunts and uncles.  Only two of her relatives survived the camps.
 
"The aunt and uncle of my grandfather both survived Auschwitz," Palko says. "I saw my grandpa’s aunt's tattoo of the numbers growing up as a child, but I never understood what it meant. I visited her with my mom. As a kid, she spent a lot of time with her."
 
After the Holocaust, her family assimilated into Christian culture. Due to the struggles of living a Jewish life in that part of Europe, her mother married a Christian and turned away from her Jewish roots. Once Palko decided to pursue a Jewish identity, her mother supported her decision but refrained from leaving her Christian lifestyle.
 
"My mother was raised in the generation after the Holocaust. It was the generation where they did not even want to speak about it. They wanted to forget," Palko explains. "You need to know that my mother was also not raised as a Jew; therefore, letting me decide whether I wanted to follow the Jewish or the Christian path was a very brave act of hers."
 
Palko explored her Jewish roots while in high school and later, doing her Master’s degree program, signed up for a Taglit-Birthright trip in order to to surround herself with Jewish peers. And she embarked on her first trip to Israel.
 
"I had heard a lot about Israel from my grandfather after our family history was exposed, but I can still recall that very first moment in Israel when my Taglit group's plane landed at Ben-Gurion Airport," Palko tells the Post. "I had that unmistakable sense of coming 'home.' It felt like getting up from a deep sleep, or stepping out into the real world for the very first time. I have travelled a lot in my life, ever since I was a toddler, and still Israel took my breath away and has been keeping me spellbound ever since our first encounter."
 
After her Birthright trip, Palko brought little pieces of Israel back to her grandfather in Hungary. She brought him his favorite Israeli food and gifts. They went through all her pictures together and shared stories about their Israeli experiences. The more she connected to Israel, the deeper their bond grew.
 
"I was the only grandchild to return to the religion," Palko notes. "That made our relationship special. I felt like coming to Israel was preserving his legacy."
 
After her first trip to Israel, Palko could not stay away. She enrolled in a summer Ulpan at the University of Haifa to study Hebrew. In addition, she led Birthright trips to cultivate and inspire Jewish identity. Since she chose Judaism, she wanted to spread her story to as many people as possible.
 
"Leading Birthright trips has exposed me to so many Diaspora Jews," Palko gushes. "Many people take their Jewish identity for granted. As a Central European, it is a lot harder to be a Jew. Being a Jew has become so important to me, and I want to inspire others to feel the same."
 
Palko landed a job at the Foreign Ministry of Hungary, where she worked for two and a half years, but she could not shake the feeling that something was missing from her life. After weighing her options, she decided to quit her job in Hungary and signed up for a MASA program—Israel Government Fellows in Jerusalem. She currently holds a full-time government position as the International Spokesperson of the Ministry of Public Security, and attends weekly seminars and lectures on a variety of topics — from the history of Zionism to the Israeli political system and economy - at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center.
 
"I wanted to come to Israel for both very personal and professional reasons," says Palko. "I worked as an intern and later as a diplomat of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Hungary. During my Master's studies at the University of Hamburg, I specialized in the Middle East; thus, I knew from the first moment on that there is no better place on earth than Israel for me to improve my professional skills and widen my horizons in Israeli domestic politics and foreign policy."
 
On a more personal note, she wanted to live in Israel to get closer to her new-found Jewish roots. "I needed to live here," Palko stresses. "I feel a newly developed sense of responsibility to strengthen my connection to the Promised Land by learning Hebrew on a higher level, getting to know in depth the history and the culture of the Jewish people. I am building new relationships and getting immersed in the world of Jews from all over the world and most importantly Israelis."
 
Her grandfather could not wait for her to live in Israel. She informed him in January that she’d soon be leaving for Israel to participate in the one-year Masa program. He wanted to have one proper Shabbat meal with her before she left. Unfortunately, he passed away at the beginning of April before they could share that last meal.
 
"My grandfather's death was very emotional for me," Palko mourns. "He taught me everything I know about Judaism. Now, I'm the only Jew left in my family. It is very important for me to raise my family Jewish. I want to give my family what my grandfather gave to me.”
 
Living in Israel is everything she dreamed it would be. "My Jewish connection has been growing stronger with every second spent in this country," Palko says. "It involves memories of and respect for my grandfather, and a commitment to learning more about Judaism and inspiring others to do the same. I found my way finally and I am happier than ever, not just because I chose this path, but because I found true happiness in it."
 
 
Photo: Allie Freeman

JPost: Masa celebrates 10 years with mega event in Jerusalem

JPost: Masa celebrates 10 years with mega event in Jerusalem

JPost:  Masa celebrates 10 years with mega event in Jerusalem

November 18, 2013

By Allie Freedman
 
From Idan Raichel to Netanyahu, the event brought a small taste of Israel to participants on program that allows young Jews from around the world to study, volunteer and intern in Israel.
Last Thursday, 3,000 Masa participants flooded the Binyanei Ha'uma (convention center) in Jerusalem for a night of music, dancing and even a few words from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
 
MasaFest 10 Year Celebration commemorated the organization's work over the past decade. The event hosted a multitude of Israeli powerhouses including Netanyahu, Chairman of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky and cross-cultural musical phenomenon the Idan Raichel Project.
 
This year, Masa brought a record-breaking 11,000 Jews from 62 different countries to Israel. Starting out with 4,000 participants from 30 countries in its inaugural year, the organization has grown significantly this past decade. Masa is a joint project between the Government of Israel and the Jewish Agency for Jews between the ages of 18 to 30. Through over 250 programs, Masa participants study, volunteer and intern in Israel for five months to a year.
 
Special guest Netanyahu kicked off the evening's festivities. Addressing a sea of Diaspora Jews, he stated, "You have dedicated a year of your lives to live in Israel. You came here from many lands to this land, and this is your land. This is your home. Israel is always your home. This is the meaning of Masa."
 
He then invited his son, Avner, to join him on stage with his participants in Garin Atid. His Masa program unites the Tzofim (Israeli Scouts) with participants from Young Judaea from all around the world.
 
Netanyahu also discussed the most recent reports on Iran's nuclear program slowing down. He stated, "I guarantee you one thing. Israel will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons."
 
In addition, Sharansky addressed the Masa participants, stating that they are part of the family and future of Israel. 
 
“The 86,000 young people who have experienced life in Israel through Masa will make up the core of Jewish leadership for decades to come. All of you are young leaders of our people," said Sharansky.
 
After the speeches, the event shifted to the entertainment portion of the evening. With promotional videos, dance performances from Masa participants and fireworks, the room was warmed up and ready to go. The highlight of the opening act culminated in a remix between "Time of My Life" and "Kol Ha'Olam Kulo."
 
Then, the world renowned Idan Raichel Project played an exclusive concert for Masa participants. Israeli singer-songwriter Idan Raichel blends together an ensemble of musicians from all over the world. Working with more than 95 artists playing a myriad of instruments, the project combines musical styling from different ethnicities and cultures to create a global sound. 
 
Masa participant Megan Garrett from Israel Teaching Fellows in Netanya loved the electronic sound and multi-cultural flair of Idan Raichel's music. "Between the harmonizing voices of all the performers to the variety of instruments, they created a sound that made you move," said Garrett. "Everyone was dancing together in the audience. It was an amazing vibe."
 
With the release of the project's new album, Quarter to Six, the concert featured a wide range of vocalists, languages and instruments. At this concert, Idan Raichel invited special guest Amir Dadon to showcase two songs he released with the project.
 
From music to politicians, the event brought a small taste of Israel to Masa participants.
 
"After living and volunteering for two months in Israel, I felt appreciated and even more connected to the Israeli culture by getting to hear the Prime Minister speak and the Idan Raichel Project perform," said Garrett. "In America, I would never get to hear the president speak or one of the most popular bands play at the same time. It was amazing for them to address my whole purpose of being in Israel." 
 
 
Photo: Masaisrael

Rabbi Natan Alexander

Rabbi Natan Alexander

Director of Jewish Studies Programs

An Awesomely Awesome Adventure

<div class="masa-blog-title">An Awesomely Awesome Adventure</div>

By Deryn Harbin, WUJS Israel Intern Tel Aviv
 
The Jewish spirit lives in human beings of many shapes and sizes across almost every continent. The very definition of what it means to be Jewish is pluralistic in nature. It is said that if you leave two Jews in a room to argue, there will be three different opinions.
 

JPost: Two Jews, five opinions

JPost: Two Jews, five opinions

JPost: Two Jews, five opinions

November 12, 2013

By Allie Freedman

 

Israelis and international Jews join forces for a weekend in the Negev exploring issues of religious and national identity.

“What do you mean Jewish identity comes before solving Israel’s image in the media?” barks an Israeli soldier.

 

“All I am saying is that we have to come together in the Diaspora first to help come together as an Israeli nation,” responds a native Russian hoping to make aliya.

 

 “But what about the religious and secular divide? We need to come together as a religion before we can even think about coming together as a nation,” argues an American yeshiva boy.

 

Amid the silent desert air rages a fiery debate over the future of the Jewish people. The task was simple: rank several issues from most to least important. The outcome sparked a cross-cultural debate from Jewish voices from around the globe.

 

Last weekend, 100 Jewish participants between the ages of 21 and 27 ventured to the Negev for the Masa-Partnership2Gether Face-to-Face Encounters program. Masa is a joint project between the Government of Israel and the Jewish Agency for Israel. With over 250 programs, Masa brings young adults between the ages of 18 to 30 to Israel for five months to a year. The weekend seminar named Mifgashim, run by Masa and the Jewish Agency, is the first of a three-part series.

 

“The Mifgashim Seminar series introduces Israelis to Diaspora Jews,” says Program Director Ilan Levene. “Many people come to Israel on a Masa program and do not even meet Israeli peers in the entire five months to a year duration. The connection with Israelis is so important. You cannot truly connect to the land of Israel without connecting to the people.”

 

The seminar brought together 42 Israelis and 58 Masa program participants for a weekend of campfires, desert biking and thought-provoking discussions. Housed in the Nitzana Educational Eco-Village, participants ate, slept, and learned together for two-and-a-half days.

 

Twenty-one-year-old Israeli Yael Shavit from Modi’in traveled to Nitzana for her second Mifgashim seminar after attending one last year in Arad. Shavit discovered that both conventions helped shape her Jewish identity. 

 

“As an Israeli, I feel like this convention really opened my eyes to Judaism outside of Israel,” says Shavit. “By seeing Judaism through the eyes of Jews from abroad, I am starting to ask myself big questions about my own Jewish identity. I found a new way to embrace Judaism.”

 

A maximum of three participants per Masa program were chosen to attend the convention, which hosted participants from the United States, Russia, England, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Hungary, France, Australia, Britain and Sweden.

 

Masa Educational Program Manager Avital Elfant believes that this program, unlike other Masa seminars, provides participants with a deeper connection to Israel as a whole.

 

"Everyone who comes on a Masa program is looking for something different," says Elfant. "In two weeks, Masa is going to have a Shabbaton on security and diplomacy. While that is great, you can do that in a college campus anywhere. The Mifgashim series can only be done in Israel. The participants get more out of it than just knowledge. They gain experiences with Israelis beyond the falafel guy on the street."

 

Masa Gvahim participant Sandy Dray hails from Toulouse, France. She joined her Masa program to immerse herself in Israeli culture before making aliya. As a future olah, she attended the seminar to meet more Israelis.

 

“I think the convention confirmed my choice to stay in Israel,” says Dray. “The minute I landed in Israel, I knew I was home. I love how happy all the Israelis are for me that I want to live here full-time. It means a lot to me. This weekend brought me tons of new Israeli friends, which is important since I’m making aliya.”

 

Through the convention, Dray believes that both Israelis and non-Israelis gained valuable insights into each others' lives, free from the disruptions of technology and other outside forces.

“I think we both have to learn from one another,” says Dray. “I think Israelis want to know why we want to come to Israel, either for a short time or forever; and we want to learn and understand how they live their Judaism here in Israel.”

 

In addition, Elfant adds that many Israelis rarely have the chance to communicate with international Jews due to Israel's geographical location.

 

"For the Israelis, we live within a bubble," says Elfant. "We are surrounded by Arab countries. It is almost impossible to meet Jews from around the world. They have no idea what Jews around the world think and the struggles of being a Jew in the Diaspora."

 

American college student and Masa participant Shane Skikne comments that this convention is the first time since he moved to Israel that he was able to communicate with Israelis on a deeper level. 

 

“It sounds crazy because I live in Israel, but I have had such a hard time meeting Israelis since I’ve been here,” says Skikne. “This is not just the first time I’ve made Israeli friends, but it is also the first time I’ve communicated with them on a higher and deeper level.”

 

To elevate and encourage the discussion, the group of 100 was divided into five groups of 20, split evenly between Masa participants and Israelis. The groups remained together the entire convention and even shared rooms with other group members. The small group setting enabled participants to delve deeply into tough questions about Judaism. The lively debates that ensued highlighted the cultural differences of Jews around the world.

 

“We work hard to develop a broad spectrum of topics that can trigger discussion,” says Levene. “Many of the discussions get heated because people care. People are passionate about who they are and who we are as a people.”

 

Israeli soldier Matanya Nahum enjoyed the open dialogue because it demonstrated that even though Jews come from different places, they still share a common thread throughout the world.

 

“The bottom line is that we are the same nation,” says Nahum. “The way we live our lives from day-to-day is so different. We must share our life experiences with each other and be involved in each other lives. This is why we must reinforce and tighten the connection between the Israelis and Jews from the Diaspora.”

 

The Nitzana convention is simply an introduction. To reinforce the ties between participants, the staff allows only Nitzana convention participants to attend parts two and three of the series. The second convention will take place in Tel Aviv on December 5-7, and the third will be held in Jerusalem on January 3-4.

 

As the weekend wound down, many program participants said that the friendships cultivated in Nitzana will continue long past the conventions.

 

“I went from having no Israeli friends to having ten invitations for Shabbat dinner,” said Skikne. “This is more than just a weekend retreat. This is a bond for life.”       

 

Originally published by the Jerusalem Post

 

Photo: courtesy