Gen-Yers have a new take on Israel.June 26, 2009
Julie Gruenbaum Fax
The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles
David Weiner, a 32-year-old social studies curriculum publisher from Los Angeles, went on an unlikely pairing of back-to-back missions to Israel.
His first week in Israel, he and a mini-bus full of peers in their 20s and 30s visited recipients of the New Israel Fund, a progressive social justice organization. They met a man who had built a sustainable home; toured Hebron with a group of veteran Israeli soldiers; visited Palestinians, Bedouins and Ethiopians; and explored East Jerusalem and the wall separating the West Bank.
The next week, Mr. Weiner embarked on the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) Board of Governors Mission, where he and about a dozen young members of the AJC’s Access young professionals group met with the foreign minister; visited the beleagured town of Sderot; and explored the meaning of Zionism with Israeli nonprofit leaders.
Mr. Weiner said his involvement in each of these organizations—one progressive and alternative, the other mainstream and established—enriches his experience in the other.
Mr. Weiner’s approach is typical of many Gen Y-ers, people born between the mid-1970s and early 1990s. They don’t accept the mainstream concept that they wave the Israeli flag and pledge support to the Jewish state. Instead, today’s future leaders are forging a relationship with Israel that is nuanced and multifaceted. They rely on cultural interactions or collaborative tikkun olam projects, sometimes in addition to, sometimes instead of, traditional political advocacy.
It is a shift in attitude that the Jewish establishment is still trying to get its head around.
Community leaders were rocked when a study by demographers Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman revealed that more than 40 percent of non-Orthodox Jews under 35 felt only a low sense of attachment to Israel, and nearly half would not view Israel’s destruction as a personal tragedy—slight but notable shifts from their Gen-X predecessors and more so from their Baby Boomer parents.
Much of this generation’s alienation from Israel can be attributed to general attrition of Jewish identity. Many of this generation have intermarried or are not averse to the possibility, or are disconnected from Jewish life altogether, which from the start makes them less likely to feel strong ties to Israel.
The question haunting community leaders is whether even those who do identify Jewishly are losing their connection to Israel, as the Cohn-Kelman study indicated, or whether the Gen-Yers are simply expressing a new kind of relationship to Israel in terms the mainstream doesn’t yet understand.
What can sometimes appear to establishment leaders as waffling on Israel by the younger generation may instead reflect a disinclination to connect to Israel through the institutional models of the past few decades.
Previous generations’ proximity to the Holocaust or to Israel’s early history fostered an untouchable pride in the country for Baby Boomers and to a lesser extent for Gen-Xers, even those not Jewishly involved. Today’s young Jews, by contrast, grew up on the news of the first and second intifadas, religious intolerance and political scandal.
“The image of an Israel that can do no wrong has certainly been called into question since I left eighth grade,” said Aaron Aftergood, a 27-year-old real estate attorney who attended day school in Los Angeles and now sits on the board of Camp Ramah of California.
David Cygielman, 26, is the director of the Santa Barbara-based Forest Foundation and a founder of Moishe House, a network of 23 Jewish co-ops where housemates host events for young Jews in the region. He’s been to Israel five times since he was 15—four of them on organized trips—and considers Israel central to his identity.
But he doesn’t think Israel’s existence has to be tied to Judaism’s success.
“A lot of people put this pressure on, that if Israel didn’t exist Judaism wouldn’t exist,” he said. “They tie those two together, and I don’t have the same feeling. I’m appreciative of Israel, and I want it to exist and to flourish and to continue because it’s a great place and beautiful things happen there, not because if it doesn’t exist it will be the end of Judaism.”
Many young people shy away from discussing Israel with Jewish or non-Jewish peers because they don’t have all the information they need, and still others believe that their questioning is not welcomed by the Jewish mainstream.
“Some people want room to be unsure, and there is a lot of sureness in Jewish communal perspectives about Israel,” said Jaime Rapaport, regional director of Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), a social justice organization that keeps Israel high on the agenda.
PJA attracts an enviable number of young people with its emphasis on social justice, and it has several programs for Gen-Yers, including the Jeremiah Fellowship, a one-year leadership training program that includes elements on Israel, and NewGround, a Muslim-Jewish dialogue for young professionals.
Another organization, the Center for Leadership Initiatives, founded in 2006, offers leadership fellowships, with an annual conference for the participants in Israel, including 40 North Americans, 40 Israelis, and 40 Jews from around the world. Its Charlie Award recognizes the achievements and visions of Birthright alumni, and other programs support grantees in Israel.
Birthright, to date, has funded all-expenses-paid trips to Israel for more than 160,000 young Jews; its leaders hope to help participants sustain their connection to Israel as it launches Birthright Next, a program to follow up with Birthright alumni.
Said Yoni Gordis, executive director of the Center for Leadership Initiatives, “I think the benefit this generation is bringing to the conversation is that they are adding nuance where it has not been so nuanced. Now, we have to make sure the nuances they bring get air to breathe, rather than get quashed.”
Julie Gruenbaum Fax is education editor for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.