Now More Than Ever!

The Number of Young Americans in Israel Is Low But Growing — And So Is Their Devotion

By Anya Kamenetz

Published August 01, 2003, issue of August 01, 2003.
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The medical supply unit at a large Israeli army base near Tel Aviv turns out to be a nondescript collection of warehouses with corrugated roofing, stacked inside with cardboard boxes. It’s just about the last place one might expect to find an American teenager having the time of her life. But in a workroom sorting packages of adrenaline, Shauna Harris of Danville, N.H., 15, was doing just that on a recent summer afternoon.

“It’s been the most amazing experience of my life, just being here,” she said. “It’s so fulfilling because I know I’m doing all I can to help.”

For the past three summers Harris, along with her mother, has come to Israel to volunteer with Sar-El, a two-decade-old program that brings civilians from around the world to Israel to work on army bases.

Harris represents a new trend in Israel tourism. After plummeting over the last two summers in response to the violence of the Palestinian intifada, the number of American Jews visiting Israel has begun spiking upward this year. It’s only a slight uptick — nowhere near the numbers before September 2000 — but tour operators and Jewish organizations are encouraged.

Birthright Israel, the giant in the Israel-travel-for-youth field, has about 3,000 American participants this summer, roughly twice its total last summer. “I think we’re starting to see a turnaround,” said Birthright’s North American chair, Marlene Post. “This year, we’ve already sent over 6,000 — and we have over 7,000 applications for the summer. At least 50% to 60% are from the U.S.”

At the same time, travel experts say they’re seeing more and more visitors like Harris — motivated less by wanderlust or fun-seeking than by a commitment to the Jewish state.

“I believe that anyone who went the past two years made a conscious decision that they wanted to go to Israel,” said Post. “We see people who have thought about the decision.”

Part of what they’re thinking about, of course, is their own personal safety in what many Americans view as a virtual war zone. Before the intifada began in September of 2000, Birthright Israel received nearly 30,000 applications for 10,000 spots, but for the past two years it has had difficulty filling its North American slots, even though the trip is free for participants.

OTZMA, a program sponsored by Jewish federations that brings recent college grads to Israel for a 10-month program of community service, was averaging about 80 participants a year during the 1990s. Thanks to the intifada, it was down to just 12 participants last year. For next year, it already has more than 40 applicants — still below pre-intifada levels, but way above last year’s trough.

“What we’re finding,” said Marni Mandell, North American director of OTZMA, “is a very strong-willed group of people this year. They have very strong convictions about going or staying.”

Typical is Roni Ben-David, 23, of Louisville, Ky., who recently completed a stint as an OTZMA volunteer in an immigrant absorption center and a Youth Aliya village. “I just thought, I want to be there right now,” Ben-David said. She came to Israel, she said, “to satiate my own need, my search for what my connection was.”

“I wanted the luxury of being able to look at Israel critically and discover it for myself,” she added. “I wanted to figure out the answers to my political and religious questions. You can’t do it in the States.”

Israel is now “100% of me,” Ben-David said. “It fills my body, makes me happy, makes me upset; it’s my passion. It’s decided my career, my priorities, my friends, maybe who I marry, how I live my life Jewishly.”

Ben-David already knows how she will integrate Israel into her life back home. In September, she will work in Israel-campus outreach for the Jewish Community Federation of California’s East Bay.

This kind of tourism isn’t for everyone, to be sure.

“My friends back home don’t understand,” said Harris, the Sar-El volunteer. “They have no commitment to anything besides nail polish, hair, music, movies. I know there are a few kids in my synagogue who might understand if they could come here, but it’s a sacrifice in their eyes.”

That’s the other side of the changing profile of youth travel: what scholars describe as a growing polarization among young American Jews, between a minority whose commitment to Israel and Judaism is growing stronger by the year and a majority whose commitments are growing visibly weaker.

The larger group was described this past spring in an influential study by pollster Frank Luntz, “Israel in the Age of Eminem,” which was published by the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. The study found that 80% of American university-aged Jews felt Israel and the organized Jewish community had little relevance in their day-to-day lives.

Even among those who do feel committed enough to get on an airplane, the nature of the commitment can take many forms these days. Dara Silverman, 30, came this summer with help from the International Solidarity Movement, a self-described peace group that identifies with the Palestinian struggle against occupation. American Jews who join its ranks are often described as anti-Israel, but Silverman thinks it’s part of the Jewish commitment to justice.

“I’ve gotten a lot of support from Palestinians for being Jewish and doing solidarity work,” she said over hummus and salad at a noisy East Jerusalem cafe. “When I get a chance to really talk to people, I say I’m here because I’m Jewish, because of the values I was taught as a Jew, what it says in the Torah about transfer of land and return of land, and about tzedakah, righteousness.” Silverman, who works for the Grassroots Fundraising Journal in Berkeley, Calif., plans to speak about Israel and the Palestinians throughout the United States when she returns home.

“People I know who are Jewish in the U.S. are really scared. A common thing I hear is, ‘I don’t know what’s going on,’” Silverman said. “I think it’s a necessary time for Jews in the U.S. to be working with other Jews to find out the truth of what is being done by the Israeli military with our tax dollars.” As different as her viewpoints are from those of Ben-David and Harris, what Silverman found in Israel surpassed her expectations, too. “It’s been a deepening of my understanding of what it’s like to live under occupation,” she said. “The occupation has made both countries a war zone.”

Despite the current cease-fire, security remains a concern for travelers to Israel. “Every time I’d say I’m going to Israel, I’d hear the same two things: ‘Be careful,’ ‘Aren’t you scared?’” said Erin Robbins, 30, at the Café Hillel on trendy Emek Refaim Street in Jerusalem. The redhead, who was energized after participating in the April 2003 policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, decided to come to Israel in June to study at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.

“The night before I left… the CNN ticker… said, ‘Kidnap warning for Americans [in Israel].’ And I started to reconsider my decision, but I decided, I’m going to go for a week, and if I feel scared, I’m coming home next weekend.”

Sometimes it turns out that leaving is more difficult than coming.

“I told my mom I’m just not ready to go” home, Robbins said with a smile. Within a month of her arrival, she had already started looking for a way to stay in Israel for at least part of her law degree, which she is set to begin this fall at the University of Montana. “I feel really at home here,” she said.

Shauna Harris, the IDF volunteer, concurs. “I’m moving here in one year, 11 months and three weeks,” she said, or in other words, the minute she graduates from high school.

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