It is almost a cliché to say that Passover is the family holiday for Jews (our Thanksgiving, if you will). It’s when we get to sit at the same table with our loved ones, who also happen to be the ones that can be oh-so exasperating. It is a fascinating tradition where we tell a story together — the story of our birth as a people. And we relate this ancient story to the present day, reliving and renewing ourselves.
It’s in this very spirit that we have been conducting a fresh and global conversation, as we prepare to launch a new program, a collaboration of the Israeli government and world Jewry, aiming to strengthen young Jews’identity and their connection to the Jewish people and to the Jewish state. For the first time in history, there is an organized mutual effort involving both Israel and the Diaspora — an effort that is groundbreaking in its demand for equal responsibility and partnership.
The cost of this initiative? It’s $300 million each year, to be split: $100 million from the Israeli government, $100 million from global Jewish philanthropy and the rest through fees paid by participants in various programs. Undeniably, it is a lot of money. But just as undeniably, we have a big and expensive problem on our hands. It is increasingly unclear what the Jewish nature of the Jewish state is, and how committed the majority of Diaspora Jews are to the vibrant continuity of our people.
Recent reporting by the Forward uncovered that of the $26 billion in assets claimed by the Jewish not-for-profit world, nearly 38% of the money belongs to organizations with an Israel-centered focus. With so much money going to Israel already, does it make sense to have that money move to Israel from the United States, and then potentially move back again in the form of educational programming?
This certainly points to a new kind of relationship, one in which Israel is no longer the needy cousin but rather the partner, the innovator — and the initiator.
But this is also decidedly not a top-down initiative where anyone is dictating anything. For one thing, in the proposed initiative, the funds of Jewish philanthropists would be combined with those of Israeli taxpayers. And while the idea originated with the Israeli prime minister and Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the initiative itself is entirely grassroots. It has, by now, involved hundreds of professionals in the fields of Jewish education, identity building and peoplehood — in Israel and beyond — and hundreds of lay leaders and volunteers. It is based on more than 100 comprehensive interviews, a two-day planning summit with 150 participants globally and online jam session where the concept papers produced by seven teams of experts were read, commented on and discussed by more than 2,400 individuals.
These open forums were watched online by more than 20,000 people from 52 countries over four days. Everyone in the Jewish world was invited to participate and “talk” in online chat rooms. Here, we have created a sort of a modern Talmud on the issue of Jewish engagement. And here’s the fascinating demographic: Sixty-one percent of the participants were between the ages of 18 and 34. The joint planning, funding and implementing of the initiative is not like anything else we’ve ever seen.
For here, the government is not dictating the nature of Jewish identity for the Diaspora; it is co-creating a collaborative platform so that we can finally behave like a global community, one that sits around a collective Seder table. The government and the Jewish Agency — on behalf of the Jewish people — have taken the lead in staging, hosting and funding the conversation.
In the not-too-distant future, we hope trained Israel educators will staff more than 200 college campuses, and that as many as 100,000 young Jews annually will spend time in Israel learning about themselves, their heritage and their homeland. Global service learning projects will dot the world. Jewish teachers will get the kind of support and training that will make them ever more effective. And young Israelis who have a national rather than a personal connection to Judaism will be invited to press the reset button on their self-understanding. We know that immersive experiences like Taglit-Birthright, camping work. We want to scale all that up, while leaving room for more experimentation and creativity.
And who, you may ask, will ultimately run this initiative? The answer is in its very name: The Government of Israel and World Jewry Joint Initiative. David Ben-Gurion believed that the state cannot survive without the Jewish people, and the Jewish people cannot survive without the state. The Jewish people have created the Jewish state, and in return the Jewish state can now contribute to strengthening the Jewish people.
The traditions of Passover have us retelling a story, and in so doing, not only reliving our past, but also determining our future together. And so we do that here.
We have arrived at a momentous point in time, in which we, together at one table, can conduct a global conversation on who we have been, who we are — and whom we dream of becoming.
Misha Galperin is the president and CEO of international development at the Jewish Agency for Israel, and the co-author of “The Case for Jewish Peoplehood: Can We Be One?”(Jewish Lights Publishing, 2009).