JERUSALEM – More than 100 Israeli leaders gathered with their Jewish-American counterparts in November in Jerusalem with a daunting mission: to save Jewish life in North America.
Jewish-American leaders have known for years that assimilation and intermarriage slowly are shrinking their communities, but the early November gathering took on an extra sense of urgency. Just weeks earlier, a landmark study had found that young U.S. Jews increasingly are growing estranged from their faith.
As these efforts press ahead, they are being complicated by a new issue: What role can Israel play in Jewish-American life at a time when many U.S. Jews, who tend to be socially liberal, have misgivings about some of Israel’s policies.
There is a broad consensus that Israel will be an important player in solving the problems of American Jewry. Yet experts said that it cannot ignore the alienation that many Americans feel over perceived religious intolerance, Israel’s construction of West Bank settlements and the continued control over millions of Palestinians.
“An Israel which doesn’t address these issues is an Israel which in the long run endangers the relationship with world Jewry,” said Donniel Hartman, who leads an initiative called iEngage, which encourages dialogue about perceptions of Israel with U.S. Jews and which sent representatives to November’s gathering.
Jews who don’t believe Israel shares their liberal values might disconnect from it, he said.
Israel’s newfound influence in the debate on American Jewry represents something of a role reversal. U.S. Jews have traditionally been a lifeline for Israel, raising hundreds of millions of dollars and lobbying U.S. governments on behalf of the Jewish state. Today, Israel is a thriving, affluent and modern country, albeit with some unique problems.
During November’s meetings, participants spent two days brainstorming ways to bring young unaffiliated Jews back to their roots.
The meeting, organized in part by the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was part of a campaign to strengthen religious identity among young Jews and solidify their connection to Israel. Some 120 representatives from Jewish organizations worldwide, mostly from North America, and a number of Israeli government ministries pledged to formulate a plan by this year to address assimilation.
The effect of Israel’s policies on American Jewish identities was not discussed, said Alan Hoffmann, the director of the Jewish Agency, which also convened the meeting. The agency is a nonprofit group that works closely with the government and acts as a link between Jews around the world.
Still, officials said Israel is essential to cementing Jewish identity.
“It’s clear to us that if you are not part of the Orthodox world and are not connected to Israel, you assimilate,” said Natan Sharansky, the agency’s chairman. “We need to show how much your life is more interesting, more significant if part of your identity is also a deep connection to Israel.”
Israel already has invested more than $125 million trying to bring young Jews to visit, either on short tours or longer-term programs to strengthen their ties with the country. More than 300,000 young Jews from around the world have travelled to Israel on Birthright, a free 10-day trip funded by Israel as well as Jewish philanthropists. Studies show that while the trips foster a connection to Israel, that link does not always last.
Now, beyond just pumping money into Israel-related programs, Israel has established a task force and convened the Jerusalem meeting to consider a longer term strategy to keep Jews Jewish.
“I know that we have that inner strength to guarantee the Jewish future,” Netanyahu told the gathering of Jewish leaders. “I know it and you know it and together we’re going to achieve exactly that – to defend and secure the Jewish people and the one and only Jewish state.”
Hartman’s initiative, iEngage, recently was adopted by American leaders of the Reform movement, the largest stream of U.S. Judaism, as a way to strengthen ties to Israel in the context of Jewish values here.
The project is meant to help connect young American Jews to Israel by changing the relationship between the world’s two largest Jewish communities into one of equality, Hartman said. That includes openly discussing Israel’s disputed policies rather than blindly supporting them.