Recently I was asked to give a talk to my Reform synagogue’s bar and bat Mitzvah class. My Brooklyn neighborhood of brownstones and apartment buildings, nestled on the edge of Prospect Park, is a liberal, gentrified enclave, with a handful of Conservative and Reform synagogues within a several block radius. My synagogue has more than 1,000 members.
I came equipped with notes, but as could be expected, when I began my Wednesday after-school talk, my teenage audience was jumping around the room, their cell phones incessantly ringing. They stared at me blankly as I politely asked: “How many of you have been to Israel?” Only two kids raised their hands. When I asked how many wanted to go to Israel, none raised their hands. I asked them why they didn’t want to visit Israel. “Too dangerous,” they responded, or “Israel oppresses the Palestinians,” or just “scary.”
I tried to entice them by talking to them about a different Israel. Since they usually hear about Jerusalem when Israel is discussed — and it was clear that Jerusalem, holy places and all, held little interest for them — I tried another tact. I talked about the peace activists, said that Tel Aviv — not Jerusalem — was the largest city in Israel and that it had a nightlife to rival New York, with cafes on the beach and discotheques that stayed open until dawn. I told them that I visit Israel for at least a few weeks each year and that the violence they see on their television screens is not representative of daily life in Israel. But my words didn’t sway them.
One young teen asked if women were equal in Israel. The timing for this question couldn’t have been worse. Israel’s Supreme Court had just ruled against the rights of women to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The case had been litigated due to the leadership of Anat Hoffman, head of the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center.
I told them about this recent court ruling. The rabbi and I explained that Reform Jews are not allowed the same rights in Israel as Reform Jews have in the United States and that he could not legally perform a marriage ceremony in Israel. This totally baffled the young people. Our congregation has a woman rabbi and a woman cantor, both of whom represent the Jewish religion to these kids. One youngster asked: “If women weren’t equal, what about gays?” Several others echoed with the same question.
The rabbi and I smiled; we finally found something that could make the young Jews proud of Israel. I explained to them that, unlike in the United States, in Israel it is okay to be openly gay and serve in the Israeli army with distinction. I described the large gay rights marches in Tel Aviv and told them how even last year, during the darkest days of the intifada, there was a 3,000-person march for gay rights that included both Israeli Jews and Arabs from East Jerusalem and that, in fact, the Israeli courts ruled that the Jerusalem municipality had to pay for the parade against the city’s wishes.
While the class was outraged to learn about the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of the American military, they were relieved to hear that Israel practiced equal rights for gays in the military. I left there dismayed that Israel figured so minutely in the thoughts of these kids, but relieved to know that I had found at least one thing that would make them proud when they did venture a thought about Israel. I hoped that some of my own love for Israel would rub off on at least a few of these kids, perhaps in another few months, or even years, when they thought about how to express their Jewish identity.
I have no doubt that had I spoken to a Hebrew school class of 13-year-olds at an Orthodox day school or synagogue, the reception would have been different. All of the kids would have been fluent in Hebrew, in Bible stories and in the contemporary reality of Israel. Many of them would have been to Israel and planned to return in the near future — although many of them, too, would probably consider visiting a West Bank or Gaza settlement. These young people do identify with Israel as it is today, but the majority of young Jews, I believe, are probably closer to the students I visited. The choice facing the American Jewish community is a stark one, encouraging an Israel that shares liberal values or watching as entire generations of young Jews look elsewhere.
The young people at my synagogue are among the best educated of American Jews, members of a prominent synagogue that seeks to instill in them a love for Israel along with a rigorous socially conscious identity. They, like the majority of American Jews, are concerned about all sorts of issues, especially rights-based issues, whether the rights of gays, women or Palestinians. This is the prism of their daily existence — but there is no reason that this prism shouldn’t apply to Israel, too.
But Israel is a distant land to them, cloaked in violence and mysterious ways. Unlike those who defend the religious status quo in Israel, unlike those who think that a tougher, more militarized Israel will preserve that nation for future generations of Jews, these kids share a different reality. Their voices aren’t heard in the halls of Congress or even by a broad swath of the Israeli public. Yet they represent most American Jews.
A generation of young Jews grows more distant from Israel as Israel grows more distant from them. Public relations campaigns aren’t going to bring more young Jews to Israel, just as these same campaigns won’t solve the problems of contemporary Israel. Only trading in hard political choices will do that.
Jo-Ann Mort is co-author of the forthcoming “Our Hearts Invented a Place: Can Kibbutzim Survive in Today’s Israel?” due out this September from Cornell University Press.