September 22, 2019

Rabbis work to build ties of U.S. Jews to Israel

Twelve years ago, newly arrived at the Reconstructionist Malibu Jewish Center, Rabbi Judith Halevy gave a sermon about her long-term commitment to Israel, about how much she cares about the Jewish state.

“The only thing I really worry about is that you won’t care,” she told her new congregation.

“My rabbinate, in many ways, has been focused on asking them to care,” Halevy said recently. “And it’s not easy.”

As Israel celebrates the 60th anniversary of its creation, Americans are measurably less interested in Israel as they once were, especially those younger than 30. A 2007 survey by the American Jewish Congress (AJC), for example, found that only 69 percent of American Jews said “caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew,” compared to 74 percent in 2006 and 79 percent in 2005.

As interest in Israel wanes, American Jewish leaders, especially rabbis, are increasingly concerned. Why are American Jews not feeling a connection to the Jewish state? What can rabbis do to connect Jews to Israel at the synagogues, which, since most American Jewish children attend secular schools, are often the only connecting point for many Jews?

Of course, most Orthodox rabbis do not face this challenge. Orthodox congregants appear to be as connected to Israel as they ever were, if not more so. (Only 8 percent of the AJC survey participants affiliated with the Orthodox movement, as opposed to the 61 percent affiliated with the Reconstructionit, Reform and Conservative movements).

The reason? Ideology, for one. Israel is still seen as a second home — or an ideal home — to Orthodox Jews, who still make up the highest percentage of Jews to make aliyah in recent years. And the vicissitudes of the ever-changing political situation (Was there a bombing this week? Are peace negotiations on the table? Have terrorist threats been issued?) do not affect their attachment, because it is based on Torah, not politics. So the Orthodox visit more (especially in times of crisis), send their children there to camp and yeshiva and, ultimately, have more relatives living in Israel.

“Obviously, Israel is very important; it’s a central component to our community,” said Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City.

“It’s the philosophy of the shul,” he said, noting that the tapestries covering his synagogue’s ark are illustrated with images of the State of Israel and the prayer for the soldiers. “It stares you right in the face.”

During the intifada, members of Young Israel made seven missions to Israel, said Muskin, who is the rabbinic adviser to the Religious Zionists of Los Angeles. Muskin himself went to Israel with a rabbinic delegation in March, immediately after the murder by a terrorist of eight students from Mercaz Harav, an Israeli yeshiva that is the ideological leader of the Religious Zionist movement.

But most non-Orthodox Jews do not feel such close ties to Israel — neither ideologically nor in the sense of physical connectedness.

For most American Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews, aliyah — the mitzvah of moving to Israel or the obligation to move to Israel — is not a top priority.

“I recently took a synagogue trip where no one had any relatives,” said Halevy of her Reconstructionist congregants. A decade ago, she said, 30 percent would have had relatives there, and it used to be as high as 60 percent. That loss creates another level of disconnectedness.

The “generational gap,” as John Rosove, senior rabbi of the Reform Temple Israel of Hollywood, refers to it, is also a matter of history.

“Forty years ago, American Jews had the experience of the state forming and the Six-Day War, but today’s Jews don’t have that as their experience,” said Rosove, president of ARZA for the Pacific Southwest Region, the Reform Zionist movement. He noted that people under the age of 45 didn’t experience the euphoria of the 1967 victory, so they don’t feel connected to Israel the way older adults do.

Halevy agrees: “What was a given to my parents’ generation and mine is no longer true,” Halevy said. “I am 65. I was in Israel at 17, and, yes, I actually lived on the same kibbutz with David Ben-Gurion.” When she tells people this, she said, “They look at me as if that’s the Stone Age.”

The differing historical perspective between older and younger Jews changes the entire conversation about Israel.

“The attachment of a 50-something is very different than the attachment of teenager or 20-something,” Halevy said.

For the younger generation, Rosove said “all they’ve experienced is the intifada and riots and suicide bombings,” and that’s why they don’t necessarily identify with Israel. Which is why, even though most Jews are concerned about the political situation in Israel and upset by the terrorist attacks against its citizens, many rabbis don’t want to emphasize the political situation in Israel because it often doesn’t help people connect to the country.

And though crises may motivate some communities, it’s dangerous to attach support to Israel only in times of trouble, said Rabbi Daniel Bouskila of Sephardic Temple, a Conservative synagogue in Westwood: “The moment bodies start blowing up in Jerusalem, people want to support Israel.”

But, he added, “Israel is more than just a response to terrorism and politics.”

Indeed, a number of organizations have come to recognize that fact and increasingly are working to send out news about Israel unrelated to crises. The recently created news service, Israel 21c, for example, highlights news about technology, science and health, “on daily life in Israel,” trying to move the media focus beyond the political.

“It’s very hard to explain the intricacies to people who have no experience,” Halevy said. “You can’t discuss the challenges with people who haven’t bought into the bottom line that Israel is important.”

For Israeli Independence Day, for example, Halevy brought in 10 congregants to discuss their connections to Israel, instead of “waving flags and eating humus” or having a political speaker.