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Let’s Make Israeli Culture a Uniting Force for Jews Everywhere

Rosh Hashanah is a time for taking stock. We size up that which we have and that which we are lacking, and we try to make out the course corrections we need to close the gap. As I see it, one of the greatest things we have going for us as a people is the bond between Israel and the Jewish communities of America. It is absolutely crucial to Israel, and it is absolutely crucial to American Jews.

In my conversations with American Jewish leaders of every stripe, I sometimes hear concern as to whether this bond will be as strong in the future. When American Jewish children become adults, will they feel the same attachment to the Jewish homeland that their parents and grandparents felt?

When I look at the fundamentals, I see reason for optimism. Time after time I see the spark in the eyes of young American Jews as they come back from their first visit to Israel — be it with Birthright, independently or in any other framework — and this spark tells me that the bond is and will remain steadfast.

However, optimism must not mean complacency. The world is changing, and our assumptions about the ingredients that must go into this relationship cannot help but change with it.

First and foremost, we must redouble our commitment to that which, more than anything else, has made us a nation — education. Sociologists, rabbis, historians and philosophers have all pointed to this as the central pillar of Jewish continuity. If you want to see the force carrying the Jewish people through history, go and take a look at a Jewish child learning aleph-bet. The Hebrew alphabet and Hebrew language and the world of culture they express must be a cornerstone of the Israel-Diaspora ties. We must provide American Jews with the means to feel that Hebrew is their language, no matter where they live and no matter what passport they carry.

For an author like Ruby Namdar, who resides in New York, to be awarded the Sapir Prize for Literature represents a growing recognition in Israel that Hebrew can and should be a force to be reckoned with far beyond Israel’s shores. Would it not be wonderful to see in a few years the first American Jew winning the Sapir Prize? Could we not aspire to a reality in which Jewish artists, authors and thinkers in America, Israel and beyond see themselves as partners in a fully shared cultural sphere?

Historically, and for good reason, the conversation between Israel and American Jews has skewed heavily toward what Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik called “The Covenant of Fate” — that is, political solidarity and mutual concern for security and wellbeing. This pillar is absolutely essential to the survival of the Jewish people and must continue to be at the heart of the Israel-Diaspora bond. But this alone is no longer enough. There are only so many young American Jews who will want Israel to be central to their lives if all we tell them about is Israel’s problems.

We must broaden the conversation to include more of the Covenant of Destiny — that is, solidarity of identity (whether through faith or culture) and mutual concern for each other’s subjects.

There are a multitude of ways in which Israel can be relevant to the identity of young American Jews, and many of these ways we have not yet begun to discuss. In Israel, today more than ever before, more Hebrew movies are being made, more Hebrew novels are being written, more Hebrew plays are being performed and more Jewish melodies are being interpreted. For any Jew who has a passion for cinema or for theater or for literature or for music — that passion can and should include a passion for Israel.

Israel has become a leading voice in the global conversations on urban regeneration, journalism for social change, eradication of poverty. Golda Meir Mount Carmel International Training Center has been pioneering women’s empowerment in the developing world since 1961, in cooperation with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. If any of those is an issue that means something to you, then Israel can and should mean something to you.

When we talk to young American Jews about the phenomenal success and creativity of Israel’s technology scene, it should not be just to brag, but also to invite them to become partners in that success. I was delighted to learn of a new initiative in this field called The Tech Challenge. It organizes internships, training and placement for young Jewish tech majors in leading Israeli companies, with a special emphasis on cyber-security. This is not just about encouraging aliyah — this is about making Israel relevant to the lives of many American Jews who otherwise might not have strong ties to the Jewish state.

English in Israel: TALMA educators gather for a group photo. This year, the program sent 80 teachers to Israel to partner with Israeli educators and teach English to students from low-income families across Israel. Image by Courtesy of Alon Futterman

A recent story reported in this publication described young idealistic Americans “falling in love” with Israel as they were in the process of collaborating with Israeli educators on developing new techniques for classroom management, in the framework of the TALMA Program. This is precisely the kind of “partnership in success” that can get ever wider circles of young American Jews engaged and committed to Israel. This is a model that can and should be replicated on a much wider scale.

Israel must call on young American Jews to tap into the vibrant culture of contemporary Israel. It should invite the Jewish world to join the Jewish state in spirit and vision — not out of obligation, apology or greed for the spoils, but to acknowledge a joint past of fate and to build a shared future of destiny. And I believe that future looks bright.

Ido Aharoni is the Consul General of Israel in New York.

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