Selling Israel – Right Down the Drain
Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald
Originally published in The Jewish Press on September 25, 2007
It seems everyone is in a mighty tizzy about young Jews who fail to identify with Israel and don’t much care to visit there.
How do we inspire these young folks to develop some feelings for the Holy Land, and attract them to visit Israel? Is it through Israel’s glorious history? Its geographical uniqueness and geological beauty? Its religious significance? Is the fact that Israel sits at the very crossroad of world cultures going to bring the young people flocking?
Well, according to the government of Israel, it seems that “sex and sand” are the keys to drawing more visitors. In fact, Israel has just unveiled a $2 million ad campaign emphasizing just that. If Israelis themselves feel that “sex and sand” are their biggest draw, is it really any wonder a new report reveals that fewer than half of American Jews under the age of 35 would view the possible destruction of Israel as a personal tragedy?
Since its founding, American Jews have always felt closely connected to, and extremely proud of, the state of Israel – both as a refuge and a birthright. For those who lived through the Holocaust personally or were born to parents who managed to survive or escape, the creation of Israel as a Jewish state was a defining moment, etched in their collective psyches. When the threat of anti-Semitism often lurked behind closed doors or just around the corner, Israel was a very real, very necessary, safe haven that gave American Jews the confidence and pride to proudly identify as Jews.
Shouldn’t we be thrilled that our children and grandchildren no longer need to live in fear of anti-Semitism? Shouldn’t we be ever grateful for the freedom America has offered to all people, no matter their religious affiliation? How wonderful the American experience has been, especially for Jews. Kosher food abounds, synagogues are found in many remote towns in the United States, an observant Jew serves in the United States Senate, attractive menorahs stand side by side with “holiday” trees – all sending the message to young American Jews that they need not be embarrassed about being Jewish.
We pride ourselves on how richly educated this generation of American Jews is. They are enlightened, well-read and open-minded. Yet for all their education, American Jews are experiencing a frightening decline in their knowledge of Jewish history, culture and religion.
Recently, the National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP) conducted a series of man-on-the-street interviews with Jews in New York City and found that many Jews know more about pop culture than about Judaism. The video, called “JewWalking” (it can be viewed on YouTube), was intended as a lighthearted examination of a contagious lack of Jewish knowledge plaguing American Jews. Of course, our goal was to inspire participation in NJOP courses, but the extent of the lack of knowledge that we found proved that the issue is far more serious than we ever imagined.
As a result of their lack of Jewish knowledge and identification, many young Jews find themselves conflicted by the images they see on TV, the photos in the newspaper and the discussions they have with peers concerning the bitter conflict in the Middle East. Whatever your opinions on the political situation, it is not difficult to see how young Americans might feel torn about an Israel that they know mostly through the telescoped and jaundiced lens of a TV camera.
It is not surprising to learn what this dangerous combination of disinterest and ignorance of basic Jewish life and history has wrought. The sense of confidence and security in our status as citizens of the United States, and the conflicting feelings about the correctness and morality of Israel’s actions, have led to a state of apathy regarding Israel.
The notion of Israel as birthright and refuge means little to today’s young Jews. A refuge from whom? A birthright for what? American Jews simply don’t feel a need for Israel. America is as much a part of them as they feel they are a part of America. Who would hurt them in their own homes?
Tragically, too many American Jews see Israel as nothing more than another interesting foreign country, and perhaps that is the reasoning behind Israel’s “sex and sand” ad campaign. But if Israel is only about “sex and sand” like so many other Mediterranean and Caribbean destinations, why would young Jews ever choose to hit the beaches of Tel Aviv rather than the French Riviera?
Any attempt to change this frustrating situation requires a fresh approach to the issue. We must first create a connection for young Jews – not born out of fear, but out of cultural pride and religious significance. We need to attract Jews to Israel not by highlighting its superficial attractions, nor by fixating on our people’s history as victims, but by broadcasting clearly why the Western Wall, the Kinneret, Masada and even the beaches of Tel Aviv have intrinsic meaning for young Jews today.
For Israel to remain core to Jewish identity, young adults must discover what it is inside of them that makes Israel their birthright and why that matters. Central to this is developing a fundamental relationship with Jewish traditions and history.
In order to help young Jews connect to both their Jewish heritage and Israel, we must look ahead rather than look back. We must be prepared to rethink Israel and its so-called Jewishness with today’s Jews in mind.
It is our responsibility not to force the romantic vision of the country – or the often Holocaust-driven vision of it – upon them, but to open the doors for this generation to build its own connection through pride, confidence, and their appreciation for the freedom that has embraced them. We must arm them with knowledge and inspire them with the curiosity to want to build their own intimate connection to the Holy Land.
This call to impassion Jews about Israel is not directed only at outreach professionals like myself, but is indeed the responsibility all Jewish educators – rabbis and teachers, as well as parents and grandparents and, of course, the State of Israel itself. We must build those vital connections, or we will soon face a society of American Jews with a Promised Land that holds little promise for our young people.
Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald is director of the National Jewish Outreach Program and since 1975 has led the now renowned Beginners Service at Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue.