The Jewish Agency is to be congratulated on its decision, at last month’s annual meeting, to prioritize Israel Experience programs solidifying the connection between young Jews in the Diaspora and the Jewish state.
Taglit, the Birthright free 10-day mission for the 20- 30-year-olds (especially geared to those who hitherto have never visited), has proved an outstanding success.
Participants return home with a reinforced Jewish identity culminating with many graduates choosing to marry Jewish partners. The Jewish Agency wishes to expand schemes such as this as well as the MASA project which enables young people to spend an entire year here.
There are some critics who believe that the prioritizing of this initiative is a turning away from the agency’s traditional role of fund-raising – namely to encourage aliya and absorb new immigrants. However unless Jews abroad feel connected to Israel they will neither wish to contribute financially nor come on aliya.
An off-loading of Jewish identity is a major factor in the increasing rate of assimilation. Without an historic understanding of the Jewish state, together with a sense of pride in who we are, there is little to keep us within the fold. This coupled with an Israel that is at the receiving end of worldwide bashing, results in the misinformed tenuous Jew turning away from the country.
Unfortunately this has also aggravated the already negative situation for the Jewish student on campus.
It has been proven that seeing is believing – the very reason the Jewish Agency has decided to make it possible for many more young people to come and discover for themselves how it feels to be part of a majority rather than a minority in a country retaining democratic values.
THE QUESTION is whether coming here is enough.
While many have benefited initially from these programs, there appear to be two weak areas. The first is the “follow through” (or rather lack of it). Thousands of 16-year-olds visit during the summer for a three- or four-week program via a youth movement, but what happens when they return home full of their meaningful experience? A London-based granddaughter of ours participated in a summer program last year – she was very enthusiastic – there was talk of initiating leadership courses for the participants on their return home, but it simply did not materialize nor was there any further contact.
Sadly this is not unusual. What happens to all the Birthright participants who return home – do they become involved in their local community? Or are they left alone with the impact of the 10-day visit swiftly dissipating? The all-important first trip is the down payment, but without adequate follow through there are no dividends.
The second area, the more important one in my view, is the need for the Diaspora youngster to connect with his Israeli counterpart and vice-versa.
Unfortunately many programs do not allow for this engagement. Surely if we want to connect, we must ensure that there is time to meet – to share experiences, to talk to each other and learn about “the other.” This is the way to recognize that priorities are different for the 18-year-old here and his or her counterpart in the Diaspora.
Here a youngster has to enter the army – be prepared to lay down his life for the Jewish state, while his counterpart in the Diaspora is thinking about which university he might enter or some future career. These quite diverse worlds do not easily lend themselves to a comprehension of the other. This was highlighted when I addressed a group in the UK of 20-plus year olds whose perception of their Israeli counterpart was negative – citing the aggressive front typified by the name sabra. Sabra is also a fruit with a prickly outside but with a sweet inside. Through an opportunity to dialogue the sweet inside of the Israeli will – we hope – be revealed.
World WIZO organizes Israeli-based annual seminars for its younger members. An invaluable component has been the composition of these groups, which always include a high proportion of Israeli WIZO members – of similar age – who participate side by side with their Diaspora counterparts for the full duration of the seminar.
Getting to know you, getting to know all about you (as the song goes from The King and I) is an important tool in bringing us together. There can there be no better place than Israel for this to happen.
The relationship between Israel and the Diaspora is of enormous importance with much having been achieved in the past. However, if we wish this partnership to be strengthened in the future then the foundations have to be laid today. Bringing young people here is not enough in itself. It is vital to ensure that the programs contain Israeli peer participation, an opportunity for dialogue which finally culminates with a follow through contact on the return to their home country.
Let us hope that the Jewish Agency will succeed in bringing many more young people to Israel, intensifying their Jewish commitment, inhaling the Zionist dream and one day perhaps making it their own reality.
The writer is public relations chair of World WIZO and cochair of Europeans for Israel.
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