Analysis: The Global Jewish Shuk


Making The Connection

And that intrinsic Jewish spirit is something that thought leaders believe could be a secret sauce for reconnecting younger Jews with the Jewish people.

Statistically, travel to Israel is one of the best modes for engaging young people and igniting their passion for Judaism and Jewish life – communal or otherwise. Studies of Birthright Israel have shown that Jews who travel to Israel are more likely to marry within the fold and better celebrate their Jewish identities.

PM Netanyahu and JFNA Chair Michael Siegel walk at the Opening Plenary (Photo by AG for JFNA)

PM Netanyahu and JFNA Chair Michael Siegel walk at the Opening Plenary (Photo by AG for JFNA)

Active dialogue surrounded a new initiative by the Jewish Agency for Israel, working with the government of Israel and nonprofits from across the world, to better engage 13- to 35-year-old Diaspora Jews with Israel and to enhance their Jewish identities. Plans are not formalized, but overall this collaborative initiative will bring Diaspora Jews to Israel and invest in Israel education on campuses outside of the Jewish state.
Dr. Misha Galperin, president and CEO of Jewish Agency International Development, explained that this program was nearly a decade in the making, as it was Netanyahu who signed the legislation in the 1990s that launched investment by the government of Israel in Birthright.

“This was the first time in history that Israeli taxpayers’ money was put into a pot that funded free trips for American kids, which many thought here [in Israel] was a criminal thing to do; it was supposed to the other way around,” said Galperin.

Since then, a number of other developments occurred, such as the formation of MASA Israel, which was co-founded and is jointly managed by the government and the Jewish Agency.

“At this point, about $120 million a year are allocated by the government of Israel for various programs that have to with the Jewish Diaspora and Jewish communities [outside of Israel],” said Galperin.

When Natan Sharansky left his seat in the Knesset to become head of JAFI, he started exploring what might be next – after or in conjunction with Birthright and MASA.

About one year ago, the PM empowered a team to explore that question in conjunction with leaders in the Diaspora. A late April 2013 meeting by the PM with Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett solidified that there would need to be something done.

“The prime minister said this is important for the Jewish people – that it is in the strategic interest of the Jewish people,” noted Galperin.

Several meetings, focus groups and a white paper, led to the Nov. 6-7 meetings of world thought leaders in Jerusalem’s Binyanei Ha’Uma and the revelation that the government will likely invest double what it is investing now to ramp up programming for young Diaspora Jews. That money – though an exact amount could not be named on record – would be expected to be matched by overseas nonprofit organizations/philanthropists and by participants’ fees.

“This is a very different planning model. For the government of Israel, it is revolutionary. The government has never done this before – engaged in a collaborative planning process with Diaspora and non-governmental organizations,” said Galperin.

He continued: “This effort is moving ahead,” noting that between now and April when the government would have to present a resolution and ensure funding for the initiative is allocated in the fiscal budget, “exactly what we are doing, in what sequence [and] how it is going to be evaluated … has to be worked out.”

The outcome could have a fundamental impact on the destiny of the Jewish people – not so much in terms of the types of programming but in terms of how the programming is being worked out.

This is a first step in uniting, in creating the sought-after one Jewish world.


Walls That Separate

Even with all of these grandiose plans, there is yet another elephant in the room.

“Whether you choose to acknowledge it or not, the majority of the next generation of American Jews would not be eligible to legally marry in Israel. … They will be told, ‘Yes, you may come here under the Law of Return … but you won’t be able to marry. How will that bode for Israel’s relationship with world Jewry and America in particular?” said Regev.

The topic of civil marriage and recognition of other streams of Judaism in Israel was a recurring theme at the GA. In a panel discussion led by GA co-chair and Washington federation leader Susie Gelman, speakers tackled the topic in an intense dialogue with no conclusion.

“This issue is a matter of growing concern because it involves issues of aliyah, hasbara and national security,” said Gelman.

And while the majority of the panel participants cited statistics of Israelis who want civil marriage (67 percent according to Regev) and showed maps of Israel lumped with the most heinous of countries such as Saudi Arabia and Lebanon for its lack of freedom of marriage, the ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Elefant accused the crowd – whose members’ political persuasions were apparent by the thunderous applause at the mention of civil marriage – of failing to “face the truth and the reality and the damage happening to the 71 percent of Jews who are intermarried [in the States].”

He said, “We try to fool ourselves by saying Judaism is culture, language, gefilte fish. Judaism has rules. We can either keep them or not keep them, but to make rules up and call them Judaism is not being intellectually honest.”

Rabbi Elefant said that while what one does in his private home is his business, the Jewish state should be governed by Jewish law.

“Our claim to this land is unique, it is biblical,” said Rabbi Elefant. “If we jettison Torah values, we forfeit our claim to life on this land.”

“Our quest for social justice comes from our Jewish heritage,” Yacimovich countered in a separate session.
A similar debate went on in another room, where Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, dialogued with Ronit Peskin, co-founder and volunteer director of Women For the Wall (W4W).
Two Jews, three opinions. Can we come together?

Silverman said, “We must.”

“Coming together as a community is not just something that is nice to do. We have to do it,” said Silverman. “We must do more to shape our community as a collective effort.”

Now is the window of opportunity, said Horowitz.

“Think big. Dream big,” charged Siegal.

He continued: “Bring a big idea to the table, because one big idea, one spectacular idea, can completely reshape the world and change who we are as a people. … Together we can change the world.”

Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief —

See also, “Stop The Bomb” >> 

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