Birthright program needs wider support

Although the High Holy Days have always been a period of introspection, the Jewish community — at least those in it who care deeply about its future —
could stand to do some especially vigorous soul searching this year.

The results of a new study, “Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation from Israel,” on young American Jews’ attitudes toward Israel, were released recently, and the news is disheartening. These Jews, who represent American Judaism’s prospects in the next generation, are growing increasingly alienated from Israel, the study finds. They are less concerned with its welfare than previous generations and, unbelievably, less comfortable with the very idea of a Jewish state.

Fewer than half of American Jews younger than 35 feel that Israel’s destruction would be a “personal tragedy.” Fewer than half!

The results of the study, which was commissioned by our foundation, are shocking, if not entirely surprising. We’ve known for some time that young Jews seemed less engaged with the Zionist project than their forebears. And yet, coming face to face now with these data and assimilating the depth of the problem that they portray is unsettling, to say the least.

What’s worse, we already know the answer to this quandary, but for some reason, the organized Jewish community continues to pay it too little attention.

The answer I refer to is Taglit-Birthright Israel, the most successful identity-building program in the history of the Jewish community. Since 2000, the program has brought 145,000 18- to 26-year-old Jews to Israel on free, 10-day trips and has demonstrated time and again its profound impact on the lives and identities of participants.

Indeed, the experience is often transformational: Many participants were unaffiliated and uninvolved Jewishly before leaving, yet research shows that an overwhelming number return home to take on greater roles in their campus Hillels, enroll in Jewish studies courses and sign up for subsequent Israel trips and semesters abroad.

Others come back and decide to pursue careers in the Jewish community or to engage in Jewish life in traditional and nontraditional ways. Several thousand have even moved to Israel from countries around the world.

At a moment when Jews are intermarrying at an alarming rate and joining synagogues and other Jewish communal organizations at an alarmingly low rate, I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that Taglit-Birthright Israel could prove to be the best salve, with regard to one of the pressing communal issues of our day: Jewish continuity.

We in the Jewish philanthropic community have taken this message to heart. In less than eight short years since launching Taglit-Birthright Israel, private philanthropists have willingly funded the program to the tune of nearly $150 million. But because of the ever-growing popularity of the program, we can’t go it alone. Many hundreds of parents and other concerned members of the Jewish community have recently followed suit by making contributions to sustain the program.

But the American Jewish community as a whole must be a full partner and reach deep into its pockets and match our financial commitment to stemming the stampede of our children away from a Jewish connection.

The past four prime ministers of Israel understood this and provided the unprecedented leadership of full partnership. However, organizations like the Jewish Agency for Israel remain unwilling to lay out sufficient funds to accommodate all of the young Jews who wish to participate. As our youth disengage from Israel before our eyes, it is shameful that the Jewish Agency, for which encouraging aliyah is a raison d’etre, would fund a paltry 6 percent of Taglit-Birthright Israel’s annual budget, while the waiting list numbers in the thousands.

What of the United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella of the American federation system? UJC also can only find enough cash in its coffers to fund just over 6 percent of the program’s budget. That figure represents less than 1 percent of UJC’s entire budget for a program that has proved a consistent success, changing thousands upon thousands of Jewish lives and, thereby, potentially altering the course of the American Jewish future.

I ask this as a loving believer and supporter of this system, having been the first UJC chair.

Recently, our foundation made grants to nine federations in the desire to bring federations and Birthright closer. The grant is to hire additional staff to help local federations raise money for birthright. However, as the study demonstrates, time is not on our side.

And not only do these groups, and others like them, fail to give sufficiently to Taglit-Birthright Israel, but they fall short when it comes to creating opportunities for program participants when they return. The Israel trip is an unparalleled catalyst, to be sure. But in order to spark lifetime commitments to Israel and to Jewish peoplehood among young participants, it is equally important that there be ample follow-up options when they return home: meetings, lectures, social events of whatever kind. The trip is the gateway to Jewish identity, but without reinforcement at home, we cannot ensure that the gate remains open.

With his typical combination of vision and practicality, Michael Steinhardt — my partner in co-founding birthright israel — recently announced that he would be allocating millions of dollars for boosting alumni programs. This is truly wonderful news. Yet I’m left wondering why follow-up should remain strictly in the domain of the philanthropists. Should we be left alone to both follow through and follow up?

Why shouldn’t Jewish organizations that are funded and supported by members of the U.S. Jewish community, and which aim to buoy, strengthen and perpetuate that community, be supporting these post-program efforts, which are opportunities to raise, educate and promote the young and future leadership of our community? Do these essential ends not justify the allocation of sufficient means?

I hope and pray that the leaders of American Jewish organizations and some of their Israeli counterparts take a deep look within themselves and, like the philanthropists who fund Birthright Israel in all of its aspects, put their money where their mouths are.

Israeli military commanders are known for leading their troops into battle with the selfless cry “Acharai!” — “After me!” At this important juncture, I say to the leaders in the American Jewish organizational world, the time has come.


Charles R. Bronfman is the chairman of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.

American Jewish youth alienated from Israel, study finds

Young American Jews are increasingly alienated from Israel, according to a report released last week.

The report, titled “Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and their Alienation from Israel” and commissioned by The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, generally substantiates current suspicions rather than revealing new surprises.

The major findings are that successively younger American Jews feel increasingly distant from Israel, and that the trend has been increasing steadily for decades.

For example, fewer than half (48 percent) of respondents younger than 35 agreed that “Israel’s destruction would be a personal tragedy,” compared to 78 percent of those 65 and older. And just 54 percent of the younger group is “comfortable with the idea of a Jewish State,” compared to 81 percent of those 65 or older, 74 percent of those in the 50-64 age group and 64 percent in the 35-49 group.

The report is based on data from the 2007 National Survey of American Jews, a mail- and Web-administered survey conducted in December 2006 and January 2007 by Synovate, Inc. It only considers the attitudes of non-Orthodox Jews. Of 1,828 respondents, 124 Orthodox were removed from the sample on the assumption that their relationship to Israel is markedly closer than that of their non-Orthodox peers.

According to one of the report’s co-authors, Steven Cohen, a sociologist and research professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, the generational differences are more a function of the decade people were born than where they are on the life-cycle continuum. That means the American Jewish detachment from Israel will increase as younger Jews age and replace their parents and grandparents’ generations.

“There is growing discomfort with the drawing of hard group boundaries of all sorts,” Cohen said of the so-called “millennials,” those born after 1980. “The idea of a Jewish state reflects hard group boundaries, that there is a distinction between Jews and everybody else. That does not sit well with young Jews.”

Overall, the picture of detachment from Israel is not as dismal as those figures might suggest, Cohen argued. More than 60 percent of Jews younger than 35 in the study show “some level” of attachment to or caring about Israel.

“The glass is still half full, it’s just not as full as it used to be,” said Cohen, who wrote the report with Ari Kelman, assistant professor of American studies at UC Davis.

Political leanings didn’t seem to affect the attitudes of younger Jews toward Israel. In fact, the data suggest that those who say they vote Republican or describe themselves as politically conservative are more alienated from Israel than self-professed liberals.

Cohen surmised that there are so few young, non-Orthodox, right-wing American Jews that they are distanced from their Jewish peers in general, including when it comes to Israel.

The overall slide in attachment to or interest in Israel does not mean that young American Jews are less “Jewish.” On the contrary, numerous recent studies and anecdotal evidence demonstrate great cultural and religious vitality and creativity among young Jews. Israel is just not as much a part of the picture, which should concern the greater community, the report warns.

“It’s worrying that young Jews may be creating a latter-day Jewish Bundism, which affirms Jewish belonging but is neutral to the Zionist enterprise,” Cohen said. “We’re seeing this growing phenomenon of Jews who have no problem saying the Shema but won’t sing ‘Hatikvah.'”

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, executive director of Mechon Hadar, which provides networking and support to startup minyans nationwide, seconded the notion that young Jews have a more nuanced attitude toward Israel than their elders. In the independent minyan movement, he said, that means they have not yet figured out how to do Israel programming.

“I think that reflects a problem that our generation has not solved: how to engage with Israel without slogan-slinging” — left-wing or right-wing — “but still remain emotionally engaged,” he said.

Kaunfer described Israel Independence Day celebrations at these minyans as “muted, not because of a lack of connection to Israel, but because we are still searching for appropriate ways to celebrate and connect to” the Jewish state.

One factor that seems to increase the attachment of young Jews to Israel quite dramatically is, not surprisingly, spending time in Israel.

While the report shows that 19 percent of young Jews who have never been to Israel exhibit a “high” level of attachment to the country, the number jumps to 34 percent after a first trip and 52 percent after two or more trips. Conversely, 42 percent of young Jews who have never been to Israel report a “low” level of attachment. That number drops to 17 percent after just one trip.

The policy implications?

“Trips matter,” Cohen and Kelman write. “More trips are better than fewer, and trips of longer duration have more impact than those with shorter duration.”

“In some ways, that’s the most dramatic finding” of the report, said Barry Chazan, professor of Jewish education at Spertus College in Chicago and educational director of Birthright Israel, which has taken nearly 150,000 college-age and post-college Jews to Israel over the past seven years.

The finding confirms what Chazan and his colleagues have been telling people: Taking young American Jews to Israel on these free, carefully organized trips is a powerful tool in Jewish identity-building.

“The motivation is strong; they’re not being dragged there,” he said. “They get a hefty dose of Zionist history, Jewish history and contemporary Israel. It’s very explicitly about that.”

Chazan has just finished a book about Birthright, scheduled for a publication this spring, with Leonard Saxe, director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. They dispute the Cohen-Kelman report’s prediction of a continuing downslide in American Jewish attachment to Israel, and say Birthright has a lot to do with their optimism.

“Tens of thousands of young adults are having these experiences in Israel,” Saxe said. “It will create a generation of people who know Israel and are interested in Israel that is unprecedented.”

Stop ostracizing the intermarried

This column would not have been written had its subject not first described himself and his predicament in this week’s New York Times magazine.

Noah Feldman was a brilliant Orthodox Jewish Rhodes scholar who arrived in Oxford in my fourth year as rabbi there in 1992. We quickly hit it off. For one thing, there was scarcely a subject — Jewish or secular — upon which Noah did not have some profound knowledge. We studied Talmud together several times a week, and I made Noah a kind of secondary rabbi at our L’Chaim Society, such was the range of his Jewish erudition and his phenomenal capacity for teaching.

Noah was one of the most accomplished young students I had ever met. He was valedictorian of Harvard, a Rhodes and Truman scholar, and completed his Oxford doctorate in about 18 months, which may or may not be a university record. It was a source of great pride for me that Noah was observant and wore a kippah. We all marveled every Shabbat at Noah’s incredible ability to read any section of the Torah at our student synagogue.

After graduating from Oxford, Noah went to Yale, where his observance began to wane. I heard from some of his classmates that he was dating a non-Jewish girl. Hearing that he was quite serious about her, when his girlfriend in turn came to Oxford as a Marshall scholar, I made a point of reaching out to her and inviting her to our Shabbat dinner.

My thinking was that Noah was far too precious to me and to the Jewish people to lose. If he was dating a woman whom he wished to marry, then it was our duty to try and expose her to the friendliness of the Jewish community with a view toward her exploring whether a serious commitment to our tradition was something that would suit her.

Sadly, others took a far different view. A mutual friend of ours, who was a rabbi in Noah’s life, essentially told him that if he married outside the faith he would have to sever his relationship with him. Apparently, many of Noah’s Orthodox friends made the same decision. The net result was that one of the brightest young Jews in the entire world was made to feel that the Jewish community was his family only if he made choices with which we agreed.

Of course I had wanted Noah to marry Jewish, and I took pride in the fact that I had helped to sustain his observance during his two years at Oxford. But the choice of whom he would marry was not mine to make. Before his wedding I wrote him a note that said, in essence, that we were friends and my affection for him would never change.

I told him that he was a prince of the Jewish nation, that his obligations to his people were eternal and unchanging, that whether or not his wife, or indeed his children, were Jewish, he would never change his own personal status as a Jew. I added that I knew he would do great things with his life as a scholar of world standing, and that he would always put the needs of the Jewish people first.

We remain good friends today. I admire and respect Noah, and my wish is that perhaps, some day, his brilliant wife might see, of her own volition, the beauties of our tradition and how family life is enhanced by husband and wife being of the same faith and practicing the same religious rituals.

True to my prediction, Noah went on, in his 30s, to become one of the youngest-ever tenured law professors, first at NYU and then at Harvard, and was chosen by the American government to serve as the consultant to the Iraqi provisional government in drawing up their constitution. Today he ranks, arguably, as one of the youngest academic superstars in the United States.

How tragic, therefore, that Noah’s article in The New York Times magazine is a lengthy detailing of the alienation he has experienced from his former Orthodox Jewish day school and friends, who even cut him out of a class reunion photograph in which he participated.

For more than two centuries now, since the Emancipation, Jews have been debating how to deal with those who marry outside the community. The conventional response has been to treat them as traitors to the Jewish cause. We are all familiar with the old practice of sitting shiva for a child who marries out, as if he or she were dead, made famous in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

The extreme practice of ostracization was justified by the belief that only by completely cutting off those who married out would we be making a sufficiently strong statement as to the extent of their betrayal, thereby dissuading those who might follow suit.

There is one problem with this practice. Aside from the ethical and humanitarian considerations, it does not work. We have been practicing this alienation for decades, and yet intermarriage has grown to approximately 50 percent of the Jewish population! Worse, the practice is a lie insofar as it propagates the false notion that our Jewishness is measured only in terms of our being a link in a higher chain of existence, and that our Jewish identities have meaning only through our children. This absurd notion would deny the idea of Jewish individualism and how we are Jews in our own right.

I am well aware of the fact that intermarriage is a direct threat to the very continuity of the Jewish people. But that does not change the fact that those who have chosen to marry out are still Jewish, should still be encouraged to go to synagogue, should still be encouraged to put on tefillin and keep Shabbat, should still have mezuzot on their doors, and should still be encouraged to devote their lives and resources to the welfare of the Jewish people and the security of the State of Israel.

And as far as their non-Jewish spouses are concerned, do we really believe that by showing the most unfriendly behavior we are living up to our biblically mandated role of serving as a light unto the nations? Is there any possibility that a non-Jew married to a Jew will look favorably at the possibility of becoming halachically Jewish if he or she witnesses Orthodox Jews treating their husbands or wives as pariahs?

Leftist government’s moves worry Nicaraguan Jews

It has taken Nicaragua’s new leftist President Daniel Ortega less than two months in office to alienate the country’s tiny Jewish community.

They are distrustful of Ortega and his Sandinista movement, after his first term in office from 1979 to 1990 sent the community into exile.

Local Jews have found government moves to rekindle cozy relations with Iran a distasteful and bitter pill to swallow. The moves come after 16 years of pro-United States and pro-Israeli foreign policy by the right-wing governments that ruled in Ortega’s interval as opposition leader.

“We hoped that he would follow the policies that we had in recent years, but that is not what we have seen,” Nicaraguan Jewish Community President Rafael Lipshitz said. “There is a great deal of uncertainty.”

Ortega returned to power in November elections, in which he captured a plurality of 38 percent, enough to win the presidential race by a slim margin.

After taking office in early January, Ortega’s first official state visitor was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who spent a day touring the countryside with Ortega during his first weekend in office. The two agreed to exchange embassies, and Ortega reportedly made an open-ended promise to support Iran internationally.

The visit irked the U.S. government, as did Ortega’s action of firmly aligning himself with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who also has supported Ahmadinejad and condemned President Bush in a U.N. speech.

Ortega delayed his swearing-in ceremony by a few hours so Chavez could attend.

“In general terms, our foreign policy is based on international law; we maintain our relations with the U.S. in the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking,” insisted Sandinista legislator Pedro Haslam, a leading member of the National Assembly’s International Affairs Committee. “We want relations with all the countries of the world predicated on both justice and respect.”

Not all in Nicaragua are happy with the changes, particularly in the right-wing opposition, which would rather see the country firmly alongside the United States.

“I think that small countries like ours should not enter into conflicts,” Eduardo Enriquez, editor of a right-leaning daily newspaper, told JTA. “What we have seen in the first 40 days of the government is not encouraging.”

With most of its members successful business entrepreneurs, Nicaragua’s 50-member Jewish community is a natural source of opposition to the Sandinistas, whose socialist policies and leanings made Nicaragua the Cold War’s final front, as the Soviet-backed government battled U.S.-backed Contra rebels.

In the 1990 elections, the Sandinistas were routed from office by a coalition but remained the country’s premier political party.

But local Jews hold the Sandinistas in special contempt. During their regime, the country’s synagogue, damaged in a 1978 fire, was converted into a secular school. It is being used now as a funeral home. The country’s Torah remains in exile in Costa Rica.

The lack of trust in Ortega has local Jews on edge. Reacting to the country’s delay in supporting a Holocaust memorial resolution in the United Nations, the community has taken to the airwaves of right-wing television Channel 2 to call out the government.

The appearance led the Foreign Ministry to issue a statement recognizing the Holocaust as historical fact, a relief to the community that feared Ortega’s dealings with Ahmadinejad would put the country in his controversial Holocaust denial camp.

However, future relations with Israel, which were resumed in the 1990s but are tepid — Israel’s embassy in neighboring Costa Rica is the closest to Managua — remain clouded. Shortly after the triumph of their revolution in 1979, the Sandinistas cut ties with Israel.

Ortega surprised many by maintaining relations with Taiwan instead of China, and Israel’s ambassador in Costa Rica has made at least two trips to Managua so far this year.

Seemingly contradictory, the clouded foreign policy is in keeping with what one coffee industry executive complained is the administration’s “mixed signals,” given its lack of a clear plan.

While the early posturing has some local Jews nervous, few expect a repeat of the ’80s, when the Sandinistas forged close ties with the PLO, and the Ministry of the Interior, headed by the only surviving founder of the Sandinistas, Tomas Borge, issued passports to an unknown number of PLO combatants, as well as notorious members of Italy’s Red Brigade.

Borge, who of late has distanced himself politically from Ortega but remains an influential party leader — he is expected to become the country’s ambassador to Peru — keeps a picture in his office of himself sharing a laugh with Yasser Arafat.

“This is not the same mentality that there was in the 1980s,” Lipshitz said. “Borge is very low profile; I have not seen much of him.”

Despite the murky climate, the Jewish community is forging ahead with plans to build a new synagogue. Some members are even planning new investments.

As one member who asked not to be identified said, “This time we are going to confront them here instead of from exile.”