Young American Jews have closer ties to Israel than ever before, while Israelis who have moved to the United States are raising the Jewish consciousness of all Jews in the New World.
Such upbeat conclusions may run counter to more prevalent pessimistic pronouncements, but they are bolstered by three new research studies.
Results of these studies were presented by American academicians at the recent annual conference at UCLA of the Association for Israel Studies.
The meeting brought together some 300 scholars who participated in 80 panel discussions centering on Israel’s international relations, history, politics, law, economics, literature, film and other visual arts.
Most of the participants were from Israel and the United States, with a respectable number of professors from German, British, Chinese, Canadian, Dutch, Australian and Palestinian universities.
Matthew Boxer, a senior research associate at Brandeis University, set the hopeful tone in a session aptly titled “Young American Jews and Israel: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom.”
“The trajectory of relationship between young American Jews and Israel is one of growing strength,” Boxer proposed, even in the face of an array of negative factors.
“Despite the high rate of intermarriage, despite mismatches between liberal young American Jews and a more right-wing Israel government, despite the inadequacy of the Jewish education system, we are providing young American Jews with more and more opportunities to develop a personal connection with Israel,” Boxer said.
Taking the long view, he argued that past surveys show that young Jews have always felt less attached to Israel than their elders but draw closer as they age.
That “lifecycle effect” has held steady over the decades, barring “some external force with the power to effect generational change,” he said.
Just such an external force has been the Taglit-Birthright Israel program, which, since its inception in late 1999, has sent some 340,000 young Jews between the ages of 18 and 26, from 62 countries, on free 10-day organized trips to Israel. Among them were 240,000 young men and women from North America.
Citing a survey of Americans and Canadians who participated in three Taglit (Hebrew for “Discovery”) trips between 2010 and 2012, Boxer said that participants were three times more likely to affirm they were “very much connected to Israel” than nonparticipants.
The impact of the trips holds even in follow-up surveys conducted six to11 years after early participants returned, and a high percentage of Taglit alumni have gone on to become leaders of their AIPAC, Hillel and J Street campus chapters.
To those who argue that a 10-day program is too short and superficial to have a lasting impact, Boxer pointed out that the experience comes when participants “are at an age when they figure out who they are and what they believe in.”
Indeed, it is the emotional factor that ties young Americans to Israel, rather than purely intellectual, ideological or historic considerations, according to David L. Graizbord of the University of Arizona.
Graizbord, an associate professor at the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies, has been interviewing 22 young North American Jews (and plans to talk to 18 more), all of whom are self-declared Zionists or profess a close attachment to Israel.
Although warning that his study is in the embryonic stage, Graizbord cited 10 conclusions from his “snapshots” of Generation Y members as they explore their relationships to Israel.
Some of his key findings, not necessarily in order of importance, were:
Similar to Boxer’s study, Graizbord concluded that political leanings, biblical history or intellectual reasoning play hardly any role in developing a pro-Israel attitude.
The strongest bonds are emotional, he emphasized, fed by a sense of “the relative thickness and naturalness of Israeli Jewishness, as compared to the relative cultural thinness of Jewish life in North America, outside of Orthodox circles.”
While some tourists may be put off by the perceived brashness and prickliness of Israelis they meet, the impact is quite different for participants in Graizbord’s study.
One young American, who volunteered to work with Israelis in an immigration absorption camp in the Negev, put it this way: “I found myself really connecting with the Israelis,” he said. “I liked the openness of their society and their sense of humor … and the communal aspects of their lives.
“I thought, this is the kind of place I want to raise my family … I decided that some way, somehow, I’m going to make aliyah.”
Another student summed it up by noting that his Israeli contemporaries had “their heads on straight and they’re headed in a very specific direction.”
Although Jewish history, including the biblical era, does not seem to play much of a role in shaping young Americans’ attitude toward Israel, there is one aspect that does impact them, and that is the Holocaust.
When Graizbord asked his subjects, “Why should a nation-state of the Jews exist?” the answers always referenced the Shoah, he said.
As one young woman put it, “What I feel when I think of Judaism is just … that [Jews] are a small people and they were persecuted for so long, and they need a place to call home.”
Israeli expatriates in the United States exert an important influence in maintaining the “Jewishness” of the American Jewish community, according to history professor Marianne Sanua of the Jewish studies program at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.
The actual number of Israelis who now make their home in the United States is a matter of never-ending dispute, with estimates ranging from 140,000 to close to 1 million.
Sanua puts the figure at between 500,000 and 550,000, if one includes native-born Israelis, Israelis born elsewhere in the Diaspora, spouses (often American-born), children and students or visitors who ignore visa limitations and continue to stay on in the United States.
Initially demeaned and scorned by the Israeli government and Jewish-American organizations as weaklings and traitors to the Zionist cause, the “yordim” are now generally accepted as a permanent and important “sub-ethnic American-Jewish immigrant group,” as the Florida academic put it.
Taking the lead in the United States in reaching out to the newcomers was Chabad, which has established 25 Chabad centers for Israelis over the past 30 years.
Among the first was the Los Angeles center, which serves more than 20,000 children and adults annually, according to Executive Director Rabbi Amitai Yemini.
The main concern shared by American-Jewish organizations, Israeli authorities and the expats themselves is to transmit their Jewish identity and connections to Israel to their children and future generations.
Sanua believes that this effort has been largely successful, in the process revitalizing the native-born American-Jewish community.
According to her research, the Israelis “speak Hebrew, they belong to synagogues and Jewish community centers, and 75 percent are married to other Jews,” a much higher rate than for American Jews.
By all other criteria, the expats are more “Jewish” than native-born Jews, including number of visits to Israel, sending their kids to Jewish schools, going to Jewish museums, attending Jewish cultural events and observing Jewish rituals.
In addition, it is estimated that one-third of the teachers and 20 to 40 percent of students in L.A. Jewish day schools are Israelis or children of Israelis.
“In many ways, when so many American Jews are being lost to assimilation and intermarriage, Israeli-Americans are seen as having a vital role to play in maintaining American-Jewish communal life,” Sanua concluded.
She cited Los Angeles as “the best example in creating Israeli-American organizations for children and youth” in the United States, with the local Israeli American Council (IAC, formerly the Israeli Leadership Council) setting the pace, Sanua said.
IAC’s three main missions are to support Israel, strengthen Jewish identity among young Israeli-Americans, and build connections between the Israeli-American and Jewish-American communities.
Other Israeli-oriented youth organizations in Los Angeles, many supported by the IAC, include the Tzofim (Scouts), B’nai Akiva youth movement, the MATI Israeli Cultural Center, and such educational institutions as the Ami School, Hebrew High School, Hebrew Discovery Center and Kadima Hebrew Academy.
San Diego offers an example of a small but innovative Israeli community; an Israeli Cultural Center was founded there in 2006, Sanua noted. Partly supported by the local Jewish Federation and the Israeli government, the center offers children of expats full-scale immersion programs in Hebrew, Israeli culture and Jewish identity.
The latest and perhaps most surprising development is the launching of Hebrew-language charter schools, which are state-funded but privately run by independent boards.
The first of the so-called Gamla schools opened in Hollywood, Fla., in 2007 as a nonsectarian, nonreligious institution. The concept has now spread to other Florida cities, as well as to Washington, D.C.; New York City; Los Angeles; and San Diego, Sanua said.
Adding another perspective was respondent Samuel Edelman, a former professor at California State University, Chico, and now executive director of the Center for Academic Engagement, affiliated with the Israel on Campus Coalition.
He emphasized that today’s Western Jews still retain their ethnic roots in the Middle East, despite a 2,000-year history in Europe and a 350-year experience in North America.
He posited that the emotional attachment to Israel by Diaspora Jews is largely fueled by their historic Middle Eastern identity.
However insightful the research papers and a Q-and-A session, the attitude of young American Jews was perhaps best expressed by a student interviewed for Graizbord’s project.
“I think it’s all about reality,” he quoted her in part. “The reality is, as of today, that there’s a State of Israel. The reality as of today is that there are also Palestinians.
“As of today, there’s a lot of internal strife, and my biggest concern is, I’m not going to focus on history. I’m not going to focus on ‘ifs,’ ‘ands’ or ‘what ifs?’ I’m going to focus on ‘OK, what is the current, realistic situation, and what do I do with it?’ Responsibility, that’s what it’s all about.”