Friday, September 5, 2008

He gets it: Rabbi Andrew Davids and the connection between young Jewish adults and Israel

Last night at the Jewish Federation annual meeting, Rabbi Andrew Davids delivered a speech entitled, "Engaging the Next Generation in the Israel Conversation".
While I was unable to hear the speech, due to a prior commitment involving Afghan food, I procured a copy of the text of the speech and have to admit, Rabbi Davids gets it.

He starts off innocently enough, with the obligatory 'thank you's, the positive reinforcement for all of the great work that has been done, and reiterating the grim outlook that lays the impetus for the speech. . . but then it gets interesting.

Rabbi Davids acknowledges several facts which are both often glossed over by the current institution (or wholly ignored) and which are also of tantamount importance in understanding the way that our generation feels towards Israel.

The first is the fact that Israel exists. Simple enough, but what Rabbit Davids puts forward is the idea that Israel isn't truly facing an existential threat. Sure, there are guys who want to murder Israeli citizens, kidnap soldiers, launch rockets, etc. And Ahmadinejad isn't exactly trying to hug Israel (except perhaps with nuclear arms). But really, nothing (with the possible ironic exception of the growing Palestinian and non-Jewish demographic)poses an existential threat for the state of Israel.

This is a big deal to admit, because we of the younger generation are often fed very right-wing nationalistic propaganda. The 'rally-round-the-flag and defend Israel, even when Israel should be help accountable for its actions. To help make Israel a light unto the nations, we must first be able to acknowledge when the military or government of Israel messes up. You can't improve something if can't identify the problems.

Second, anti-semitism is simply not something that most American Jews face in any real way. This is not to suggest that it doesn't still exist, or effect people, but it truly isn't something that most of us deal with in the way that African-Americans still with racism (although that has changed dramatically as well).

This is huge to admit because so much of past generations' Jewish identity was created in response to fear and hatred, persecution and prejudice.

We no longer feel that the Holocaust must define us, and we would rather have a religion of Life, than to be known as the 'ever-dying' people.

Finally, and this is really more of a 'Federated, organized Jewish life' talking point, but Rabbi Davids nails it when he points out that we are not as interested in memberships as we are relationships.

Engaging the Next Generation in the Israel Conversation
St. Louis Federation Presentation
September 4, 2008
I wish to begin by thanking Sheila Greenbaum [St. Louis Federation President] and Barry Rosenberg [St. Louis Federation Executive Director] and their team for bringing me to speak with you today; you are blessed to be served by such committed and competent lay and professional leaders who are known throughout the Jewish community as innovators. I’m particularly pleased to engage in this conversation with you because I know how serious the St. Louis community is in regard to building upon your traditional structures for connecting with Israel and to expand the conversation and the content of that relationship. Your Focus Israel initiative is bringing Israel into a number of new communal frameworks and shaping a blue print that is being followed by other communities around North America. I am also pleased to see the work that is being done through Knesset Israel and the Conservative and Reform congregations that are re-visioning what Israel can look like when embedded in a comprehensive way in the framework of synagogue life. These efforts, as well as your strong commitment to overseas allocations through JAFI and the UJC, your significant P2K relationship with the communities of Yokne’am and the Megiddo Council, the range of Israel-oriented agencies and institutions, and your recent community-wide Israel efforts that I had the opportunity to participate in last March all point to a deep and unwavering commitment to the Jewish people and the Jewish state. As a Zionist, as a Rabbi, as an Israeli and a Jew who loves Israel deeply, I salute you and your leadership for all you do for and with Israel.
However, despite this great effort and allocation of human, political and financial resources, all is not where we would wish it to be – and this is particularly true with the Next Generation – Jews in their 20’s, 30’ and early 40’s. Our symbolic exemplar of Jewish commitment and triumph, Elie Wiesel, teaches that “The opposite of love is not hate – it is indifference.” And what we are seeing is an overall trend from love to greater ambivalence in regard to Israel that is felt throughout the United States is also being experienced here in St. Louis. And in some cohorts within the community, this ambivalence is being replaced by indifference – and the increased expression of the refrains, “Why should I care about Israel?” “Why should I support Israel?” “I’m an American – what’s my obligation to a foreign state, especially one that oppresses its neighbors, a militant occupier of other’s land?”
Not every young person has fallen out of love with Israel and I have had the opportunity to meet many campus and community activists who identify strongly with Israel and look to engage with the Jewish State, whether as members of AIPAC or of the Progressive Student Union, graduates of Young Judaea, NFTY, NCSY, BBYO or USY programs, or these wonderful birthright Israel returnees who are on fire for Israel. They do not represent the majority of their peers, however, and there are many in their twenties, thirties and forties who did not benefit from these experiences and have come of age after the peak moments of 1967 and 1973 and who understand their Jewish selves in ways that are fundamentally different than many who sit in this room this evening. But I would also add that there are many who are present tonight who also ask these questions regarding “Why Israel?” – perhaps not as loudly, perhaps with less impertinence, but with many of the same deep uncertainties as to why Israel is a critical piece of the pie.
Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman recently published a much discuss monograph entitled “Beyond Distancing.” The sub-title of the piece tells it all – Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation from Israel. Their research points to a number of reasons for this distancing: the more morally complex wars of Lebanon in 1982 and 2006 and the two intifadas; the perception of a right-wing tonality in regard to both Israeli politics and the Israel-oriented organized Jewish community; and the re-formulation of Jewish identity in America which gives primacy to the private, internal, spiritual experience over the ethnic or collective dimensions of Jewish life that shaped earlier generations. While there are some that question aspects of their research and their analysis, most of the professionals I work with in this field agree with the findings and experience these in our interactions with young adults and with the organized community seeking to engage this cohort. In order to respond, however, we must first turn to ourselves and ask the fundamental question these young Jews are asking so that we are certain we have an answer ourselves.
So, why Israel? Why should we as a vibrant, self-sufficient, politically and financially strong Jewish community, a community that has recently celebrated 350 years on these shores, why should we care and connect to the Jewish State?
Before I give you the answer – a clear, thoughtful, compelling and easy to market answer that will solve all of our problems, including rounding out the budget - and we retire for brandies and cigars in the study, I suggest we take a step back and review how we have answered that question in the past.
For the past one hundred years, and certainly for the majority of Israel’s 60 years as a sovereign Jewish state, we have organized our communal relationship and responsibility towards Israel around three key principles:
• Since the first World Zionist Congress in 1897 to the Biltmore Conference in 1942, from the powerful speeches given at Flushing Meadow in 1947 to our various political conferences in Washington, D.C., the American Jewish community has played a critical role in the establishment and ongoing support of the Jewish State. We have every right to be proud of the contributions that we have made – political, human, financial – into bringing about the establishment of a Democratic, Jewish State in our ancestral homeland;
• Anti-Semitism in America and throughout the world was a major motivator for communal action and reaction. The pogroms of Eastern Europe, the quotas in American universities and certain professions, the barring of Jews from social clubs and neighborhoods, the Jews beyond the Iron Curtain – and of course, the profound and wrenching trauma of the Shoah in the middle of the last century continues its painful impact on the Jewish psyche.
• Finally, the late 1800’s and a majority of the 20th century involved Jews seeking to flee from persecution and economic and political limitations to find places of opportunity and freedom or to join the Zionist enterprise in the building of the Jewish State.
Our communal activities that focused on Israel – by and large – have been organized to respond to these three realities: the establishment and security of the State of Israel, responding to Anti-Semitism, and the moving of large Jewish populations from degradation to freedom, from the Diaspora to Israel.
My friends, these were critical and important activities…but we’re being told by leaders such as Yonatan Ariel, Director of Makom and your partner in your Israel engagement initiative, that a new reality exists that is going to require a completely different paradigm in regard to our Israel engagement agenda:
• The state of Israel just celebrated 60 years. While there will always be real security concerns – and no one would suggest that we ignore the Iranian threat, the continue foment of anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, anti-Jewish terrorist activities at Israel’s borders – there are very few voices in Israel or abroad that believe that Israel is going to disappear and that she is truly under an existential threat. We have helped create a formidable state with one of the world’s most powerful militaries just a few generations after the Jewish people experienced complete powerlessness. Israel’s economy makes her both a powerhouse in the region and in the world. Her cultural and intellectual exports are renown. And the following may surprise you – of the almost 185 nations in the world, over 160 have full diplomatic relationships with the Jewish State.
• Anti-Semitism has certainly not disappeared and there is no reason not to remain vigilant and to respond to incidents in an immediate and forceful manner; however, we must also acknowledge that at least in the West, it has been marginalized and that any straight forward outburst of this scourge by a significant political or cultural leader – intentional or unintentional - is immediately chastised and the individual is called to task. To continue to profess anything different – and most certainly within the context of the American Jewish reality – is inaccurate.
• Finally, after almost two thousand years, most Jews find themselves living today where they want to be living. The great Jewish population shifts of the 20th century appear to be behind us, and pending great upheaval, most Jews are at home and content where they are living. This shift is even reflected in how Israeli society reacts to its émigrés who now populate significant communities abroad; once treated as social outcasts who had abandoned the great Zionist experiment, these Jews are seen by Israeli institutions as individuals making legitimate choices to live where their dreams and aspirations take them.
I make these three key points because while they are new truths for us all to consider, they are very true for the Next Generation. This is the reality that they live and perceive, a reality that is not informed by how Jewish life was viewed even two decades ago when large populations of Soviet Jews could not consider life elsewhere or when Israel still itself completed isolated at the peace talks in Madrid with only cold relationships with Egypt and no diplomatic relationships with Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Qatar, Dubai or the Palestinians.
Any campaign or initiative designed to bring the next generation of Jews into the Israel conversation – and for that matter – much of the communal Jewish agenda – will require us to accept that these core ideas that have guided our work for the past half a century or more need a complete rethinking. We can no longer look around for “best practices” because much of what has come to reflect the best thinking and the most strategic implementation strategy involve preparing for the last campaign rather than a complete retooling for a new agenda.
And we must do this if we are going to engage the Next Generation if we are going to continue to see our American Jewish community thrive, continue to contribute to the dynamic and constant renewal of Jewish life, contribute to our tradition which ties us back to the land of our ancestors and be sufficiently strong to serve as an anchor for the generations to come. For this cohort will either be engaged in a manner that allows them to age into our leadership cohort and into positions of authority and influence within our communal structures or these alphabet soup of institutions that do the sacred work of the Jewish tradition will be emptied of new blood, fresh ideas and renewed commitment
So if we cannot depend on “best practices”, how do we develop “next practices,” the strategies, resources, training and structures that will help both the Next Generation and current leadership pro-actively engage the new paradigms of Israel-Diaspora relationships, shape Jewish communal strategies and ensure that our carefully structured meaning making machine speaks in ways that are heard as truthful and compelling, that speak to the hearts, souls, minds – and yes, pocketbooks – of this new generation?
So now the brandy and cigar moment…ok, for this generation, a green tea infused power drink and a high protein, non-fat, free range raised organic trade-free multi-grain energy bar…what do I propose?
Our “next practices” are being shaped as we speak. The work that you are doing here in St. Louis makes your leadership of Focus Israel a part of perhaps 500 people around the world who are engaged in this new type of thinking, analyzing and doing. Whether in Toronto, Palm Beach, Belarus, or Jerusalem, your community is on the leading edge and the results have not yet been determinative. However, I would suggest that we are beginning to coalesce around at least four key areas that may end up serving as the principle frames for a new Israel engagement paradigm that will speak the language of this Next Generation and fit well with their own sense of Jewishness:
• One of the most difficult shifts that we will need to make as communal organizations is accepting the fact that the ship this new generation wants to travel on is not membership but relationship. Social network sites such as Facebook and My Space, constant communication through multiple forms of media, fluid groupings and spontaneous gatherings all point towards individual relationships playing a central role in motivating involvement. Furthermore, it is the opportunities for relationships with all types of individuals outside of the family and peer group that provide important opportunities for this age cohort to be mentored, to network, to grow professionally and to grow personally. As long as we continue to require paid memberships, time commitments for committee meetings with unbounded agendas or timeframes for accomplishment, and hierarchical power structures that demand years of belonging and giving to reach the centers of power and influence, we will fail at bringing this generation in to where the conversations are truly meaningful and interesting.
Making relationships a centerpiece of our Israel conversation is critical and there are ways to envision this taking place in our communities. Len Saxe and Barry Chazan recently published a book on what has been learned in the first decade of birthright Israel trips and it is clear that the most powerful Israel engagement tool on these trips is relationship building that happens between the Diaspora youth and the young Israeli soldiers who travel on the bus with the group. How can we create opportunities for similar interactions here in St. Louis and in other communities around the world where the young Israelis who travel the world after their army service are brought into our communities to build personal relationships with young adults? In what way are we helping bring Israeli students to Wash U and other campuses filled with our young people and helping them – not us – create organic opportunities for interactions, interactions that can lead to a lifetime of relationship? How do we bring our concerns for Israel and our own personal relationships with one another into their world, sponsoring informal conversations and talks at clubs, bars, gyms, professional offices, and the like, rather than asking this cohort to step through our doors and meet us on our turf?
Relationships will be at the heart of meaningful connections for this cohort and will provide us with two additional benefits: Israel will stop being a place that is abstract and begin to be the place where my friend Yossi or Tamar lives, the place that my Israeli friends who I care deeply about, are concerned about, laugh about, and call their home. And relationships also help shift this cohort from thinking solely about self and begin to move them towards a greater sense of the collective, an essential component of what is has meant to be a Jew for so many millennium.
Finally, the community’s relationship with this cohort must be envisioned as a mutual, two-way partnership. This is not about another communal funded program or agency where the community provides a service for the Next Generation. This is an age group – whether college students or young professionals – who are looking to be equal partners. I want to congratulate the Federation for beginning my visit to this community today with a open conversation with over a dozen individuals who reflect the wide range of perspectives in this cohort and am pleased that many of them have stayed on for this evening’s program. I invite everyone from each age cohort to find a time to introduce yourselves to one another and to make plans to continue this important conversation.
• A second core element will be an unmitigated commitment to intellectually honest and open conversation about Israel, a discourse that we have often been hesitant to engage in within the framework of the organized Jewish community. Whether true or merely perception, studies such as Frank Lundz’ Israel in the Age of Eminem – the rap star not the candy – point to a perception among many young Jews that our communal structures are monolithic in our thinking about Israel, are nationalistic and rightwing in that thinking and that there is very little room for debate. As a member of the Conference of Presidents of the Major Jewish Organizations, I can tell you that the perception is not far off from the reality. The old paradigm may have demanded a rallying around the flag and a narrow consensus in the public arena but this is hurting rather than helping us raise a new generation of committed Jews who will support Israel when the chips are truly down.
If we cannot discuss our own moral concerns about how power is used by the Jewish State, if we cannot share our own feelings about issues related to the different status between the Jewish citizens and the non-Jewish citizens of Israel, if cannot expose this generation to the tremendous variety of opinions about peace and security, Jewish identity and pluralism, economic structures and the countless other issues that are on the tips of tongues of every Israeli, we are actually sending a message that other opinions, whether right or wrong, are not welcome. Our people have always been our most strong when there are a diversity of opinions that are offered at the table of building Jewish futures; in fact, it is this diversity that is a hallmark of our strength. While there will always be positions that are truly outside of the camp, a much broader range of approaches will bring more people into the conversation and a less narrow, safer milieu will ensure that these opinions can be shared without fear of reprisal or accusations of internalized anti-Semetism, anti-Israel bias or the like.
I also believe that by mirroring the range of approaches that are offered on a daily basis within Israel, we are highlighting one of Israel’s greatest strengths as a robust democracy in a monolithic region. By presenting Next Generation adults with opportunities to hear from settlers on the Golan and soldiers who refuse to serve across the Green Line, from haredi rabbinic leaders to non-Jewish citizens, such as the individuals in the Arab-Druze community you have supported through your Global Jewish Needs Committee, we help present a more robust, more complex, more authentic Israel that is compelling and worthy of this generation’s time.
• A third key component will require as significant a shift in Israel as I’m proposing for our community. The Israeli paradigmatic understanding of the Diaspora, and in particular the American Jewish community, will also need a profound rethinking. This past June, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a well-received address to the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel. What made the speech so remarkable was his acknowledgement that our partners in Israel are ready to take the next critical step in regards to how we continue to strengthen Israel and the Jewish people by changing the way we related to one another. Along with some of your leadership and leadership from Federations around the country, I was in attendance and I must tell you that I was deeply moved by Prime Minister Olmert’s words. Rather than another round of “make Aliyah” and fulfill your historic role of securing Israel by sending donations while our young men and women guard the home front, Olmert talked about mutuality in our partnerships, the need to acknowledge that we had built something wonderful together but that we now need to engage in new projects that strengthen Jewish life no matter where Jews live. And he said the time had come for Israelis to begin to visit dynamic Jewish communities around the world – and in this setting, his focus certainly included the United States – so that Israelis could help recapture their own sense of Jewishness, so that they could experience the vitality, creativity and energy of what we are building here.
To tie these last three elements together – facilitating the building of relationships, open and honest dialogue, and the role that Israel must play in this dynamic, we must encourage our Israeli partners not to have one type of conversation in the cafes of Tel Aviv and a different conversation when speaking to our youngsters in our camps, from the pulpits of our congregations or from the shlichim offices around our community. These three principles must have some coherence and must both resonate and reinforce the more whole picture of Israel today. As someone who has worn the uniform of an Israeli soldier, I can tell you that the pride I felt of being trained to defend the Jewish State was always tempered by the reality that my training required me to shoot at cutouts of fellow human beings. The fact that our Israeli military might is truly awesome must always be tempered by the reality that sometimes that might gets used in ways that have unintended and troubling consequences. In a world where information is readily available – and misinformation about Israel is even more readily available – we must encourage and support truth telling if we are to break through to this Next Generation.
• Finally, as a Zionist, as a romantic and as an inheritor of a tradition which understands that pragmatism is important for the day to day but optimism is eventually what will inspire us to great ends, I believe we must begin to articulate the role of Israel within Jewish life as part of a narrative that speaks to this community. The metaphors of save haven for down trodden Jews, the lone democracy in a sea of hostile neighbors, even the Jewish homeland may resonate for some but do not tap into the gestalt of a younger generation that lives in a global village and that seeks purpose through acts of community building and justice. I believe that we need to remind this generation – and ourselves – that Zionism’s task did not come to an end on May 14, 1948 or when the final Israeli flag was unfurled in Eilat in January of 1949. The Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel has two parts; the first discussed the historical need for a State of the Jews and the second part called for a Jewish State, a state that would fully enfranchise all of its citizens and would have peace with its neighbors. A state where there would be full freedom of religion, of speech, of press. A state with a constitution that would protect every citizen’s rights.
This first part has been brought to fruition. The second, however, is still left to be fully realized. Tremendous economic and social gaps between different sectors of Israeli society demand that we continue to do better to realize the founder’s dreams. The fact that the largest groups of religious Jews in the world – Conservative and Reform Jews – remain blocked from participation in the religious and political frameworks of Israeli society suggest that these religious freedoms have not yet been realized. And while the Declaration of Independence called for a constitutional convention no later than December of 1948, Israelis – and Jews around the world who link themselves with the future of the Jewish State – are still waiting for a constitution that will enshrine these values, outlining all Israelis rights and responsibilities and speaking to the core obligations of this State to Jews around the world and our obligations to Israel.
These are all aspects of a Zionist social action agenda that can be a part of the compelling reframing of the work that needs to be done and can be done by young Jews in Israel and abroad. However, this is only the particularistic dimension of this agenda. Most forms of historical Zionism built upon the historical mission of the Jewish people not only to look after our own needs but also to be a “or l’goyim,” “a light unto the nations.” Think about the global world we live in:
o Around the world, nation states are trying to figure out how to bring various ethic sub-groups together to build a sense of common purpose and destiny that will allow a country to flourish;
o Around the world, environmental challenges are demanding new ways of thinking, new technological innovations, approaches that green the planet rather than allow the felling of forests and the spread of arid desert land;
o Around the world, countries are trying to figure out how to integrate new immigrants from very different backgrounds and to identify where the correct balance lies between cultural diversity and a shared identity;
o Around the world, military leaders are looking both for ways to curb terrorism and to use the tools of war to respond to natural disasters and nation building;
o Around the world, political leaders are trying to figure out how to better manage weapons of mass destruction, how to bring to conclusions to age old hatreds and conflicts;
Israel is deeply engaged in each of these arenas and is already an exporter of ideas that can help other countries solve these fundamentally global issues. I believe that these are acts of a more global Zionism, a form of Tikkun Olam – of repairing the world – that can speak to the highest values of our role on earth as Jews and that can serve as a source of inspiration and engagement for the Next Generation. A new generation of Zionism and Zionist thought – and as important, a Zionist call to action – that may an incredibly powerful narrative for this Next Generation.
As the Executive Director of ARZA, the Reform Movement’s organization dedicated to connecting Reform Jews and Israel, I have the opportunity to visit communities around the United States and the world. While we have a robust travel and advocacy program, and a growing membership that has brought many more Reform Jews into the Israel conversation, it is in the area of Israel engagement that I have seen both the greatest need and the greatest opportunity within the American Jewish community. Too many of our young people are on the path from ambivalence to indifference to alienation. Too many of our young adults state that “Israel is an issue that prevents them from greater Jewish identity.” Too many of our communities are not taking the steps that St. Louis is taking to rethink the entire endeavor and to prepare a 21st century response to this issue that will have tremendous impact on the future of the Jewish people. We cannot allow the two largest Jewish communities in the world to continue to drift apart nor accept a not-too-distant reality where all a young Jew in St. Louis and a young Jew in Yokne’am will have in common to discuss is the price of a Big Mac.
Your ongoing commitment to the partnerships that exists between this community and the Jewish Agency’s Makom project are a key focal point for the types of approaches I’ve outlined. The ongoing support for young people to travel to Israel must continue and should increase. The role that your Federation plays in supporting overseas allocations and ensuring a strong partnership with your P2K community are essential frameworks upon which to build this new paradigm. This community, already on the cutting edge of next practices, can and is leading this effort in a brave and profound way. As Theodore Herzl boldly stated, im tirtzu, ain zo agada – if you will it, it need not be a dream. Therefore, dream big, turn your will to these efforts, and bring the Next Generation into this conversation. B’hatzlacha. Good luck

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