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Jewish Journal

New generation has a new take on Israel

by Julie G Fax

May 15, 2008 | 6:00 pm

Gen-Yers chat during a Professional Leaders Project event, L.A. West, a leadership initiative to help coach and mentor tomorrow's leaders. Photos by Benjamin Reynolds

Earlier this spring, David Weiner, a 32-year-old social studies curriculum publisher from Los Angeles, went on an unlikely pairing of back-to-back missions to Israel.

His first week in Israel, he and a mini-bus full of peers in their 20s and 30s visited grantees of the New Israel Fund, a progressive social justice organization. They met a man who had built a sustainable living home and toured Hebron with Breaking the Silence, a group of veteran soldiers who give frank and sometimes disturbing accounts of their military service. They dealt with the prickly issue of religious pluralism, visited Palestinians, Bedouins and Ethiopians, and, with the human rights organization B'Tselem, explored East Jerusalem and the wall separating the West Bank.

The next week, Weiner embarked on the American Jewish Committee's (AJC) Board of Governors Mission, where he and about a dozen young members of the AJC's Access young professionals group joined more than 100 machers on two large tour buses.

They met with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and other government officials. They visited the beleaguered town of Sderot, met with journalists and questioned various expert panels on political and social issues facing Israel. They explored the meaning of Zionism with Israeli nonprofit leaders and met with a rabbi who puts his kashrut stamp on restaurants that have disabled access.

Weiner says his involvement in each of these organizations -- one progressive and alternative, the other mainstream and established -- enriches his experience in the other.

"Both trips combined allowed me to get a much more thorough and nuanced understanding of some of the challenges that are currently facing Israel. Each organization has different strengths and different areas they might focus on, but I don't feel like they contradict each other," he said. Weiner also participates in NewGround, the Progressive Jewish Alliance's Muslim-Jewish dialogue for young professionals.

Weiner's high level of Israel involvement might not be typical of his generation, but what is typical is his approach to his relationship with Israel: He wants to sample from the buffet and eat standing up, not order a five-course sit-down dinner.

Many Gen Y-ers -- people born between the mid-1970s and early 1990s -- don't buy into the mainstream demand that they wave the Israeli flag and pledge support to the Jewish state. Uncomfortable with terms like "Israel advocate" or "pro-Israel," many of today's future leaders are forging an arena where they can build a relationship with Israel that is nuanced and multifaceted, relying on cultural interactions or collaborative tikkun olam projects, sometimes in addition to, sometimes instead of, traditional political advocacy. To them, Israel is not a miracle to be held in respectful and infallible esteem, but a complex reality to be criticized and/or befriended, woven into or left out of many layers of their ongoing search for meaning.

It is a shift in attitude that the Jewish establishment is still trying to get its head around.

Weiner said that board members on his AJC trip were eager to hear about his New Israel Fund experiences. AJC has already taken strides by developing the Access program, and they are eager to find out what appeals to this generation of multitasking, wirelessly wired, socially and psychologically self-aware resume builders, who were raised on a diet of unconditional validation and self-esteem building.

Community leaders were rocked last year when a study by demographers Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman revealed that more than 40 percent of non-Orthodox Jews under 35 felt only a low sense of attachment to Israel, and nearly half would not view Israel's destruction as a personal tragedy -- slight but notable shifts from their Gen-X predecessors and more so from their Baby Boomer parents. Israel advocates were left wondering whether there will be enough dedicated Israel supporters to replace the retiring Baby Boomers and what the diminishing numbers might mean for fundraising and advocacy for U.S. support of Israel.

Much of this generation's alienation from Israel can be attributed to general attrition of Jewish identity. Many of this generation have intermarried or are not averse to the possibility, or are disconnected from Jewish life altogether, which from the start makes them less likely to feel strong ties to Israel.

The question taunting community leaders now is whether even those who do identify Jewishly are losing their connection to Israel, as the Cohn-Kelman study and other more anecdotal evidence indicates, or whether the Gen-Yers are simply expressing a new kind of relationship to Israel in terms the mainstream doesn't yet understand.

"The world they are in looks different in terms of opportunities, in terms of the relative place of things in community memory, in terms of the assumptions of what it means to be Jewish," said Yoni Gordis, executive director of Center for Leadership Initiatives, an operating foundation funded by Tulsa-based philanthropist Lynn Schusterman.

"This generation lives in multiple communities simultaneously, and they don't have as much guilt as the previous generation," Gordis said. "That empowers them and gives them a huge number of opportunities, and it can also make it more challenging to figure out what their level of commitment is to specific jobs or opportunities. We have to understand their commitment to community in a different way, because they express it in a different way."

What can sometimes appear to establishment leaders as waffling on Israel by the younger generation may instead reflect a disinclination to connect to Israel through the institutional models of the past few decades. To ask a Gen-Yer whether he or she is a supporter of Israel, or emotionally invested in Israel, might be irrelevant. What they want to talk about is how Israel is one of many components of a Jewish identity, and how Israel affiliation can be integrated among their other core values, such as social justice, the environment and artistic expression.

And they want to feel free to be critical of Israel.Previous generations' proximity to the Holocaust or to Israel's early history fostered an untouchable pride in the country for Baby Boomers and to a lesser extent for Gen-Xers, even those not Jewishly involved. Today's young Jews, by contrast, grew up on the news of the first and second intifadas, religious intolerance and political scandal, in an era when Israelis themselves have been deeply divided over the very nature of the country -- politically, religiously, culturally.

That vision of Israel has caused discomfort for many maturing Gen-Yers who were taught by institutions and people still holding fast to the fairy tale Zionism of Israel's early years, a vision that doesn't always fit their understanding from the news reports.

"The image of an Israel that can do no wrong, this Disneyland for Jews, has certainly been called into question since I left eighth grade," said Aaron Aftergood, a 27-year-old real estate attorney who attended day school in Los Angeles and now sits on the board of Camp Ramah of California and is active at Sinai Temple.

He's been to Israel multiple times, but still hasn't found the right venue for expressing the complexity of his connection.

"But," he adds, "whatever lukewarm feelings I have toward the place don't factor into my innate desire to be there and to help in any way I can," Aftergood said.

Some of his peers are asking for more subtlety in how Israel is marketed.

David Cygielman, 26, is the director of the Santa Barbara-based Forest Foundation and a founder of Moishe House, a network of 23 Jewish co-ops where housemates host events for young Jews in the region. He's been to Israel five times since he was 15 -- four of them on organized trips -- and considers Israel central to his identity.

But he doesn't think Israel's existence has to be tied to Judaism's success.

"A lot of people put this pressure on, that if Israel didn't exist Judaism wouldn't exist," he said. "They tie those two together, and I don't have the same feeling. I'm appreciative of Israel, and I want it to exist and to flourish and to continue because it's a great place and beautiful things happen there, not because if it doesn't exist it will be the end of Judaism."

Cygielman and Aftergood are both participants in the Professional Leadership Project (PLP), a program that seeks to nurture and integrate young people into professional and lay leadership in the Jewish community. Los Angeles-based founding director Rhoda Weisman has learned to open safe spaces for Gen-Yers to express their views on Israel -- down to questioning the feasibility of a Jewish homeland -- rather than give in to the heartache their views instinctively cause her.

At a conference last year, PLP held an open and often painful discussion about Israel. Now, Israel discussions are integrated into the regular meetings that the members have in regional settings.

"Once people were able to verbalize some of the difficult feelings and thoughts they had regarding Israel and to have a real conversation, there was an openness that emerged, and they seemed interested in having a relationship with Israel. They were able to see Israel from a variety of perspectives," said Weisman, who was an early leader in the Birthright movement.

Many young people shy away from discussing Israel with Jewish or non-Jewish peers because they don't have all the information they need, and still others believe that their questioning is not welcomed by the Jewish mainstream, she said.

"Some people want room to be unsure, and there is a lot of sureness in Jewish communal perspectives about Israel," said Jaime Rapaport, regional director of Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), a social justice organization that keeps Israel high on the agenda. "People want to be able to ask question about some of Israel's choices and not feel like they are a bad Jew or anti-Israel because they are asking those questions."

PJA attracts an enviable number of young people with its emphasis on social justice, and it has several programs for Gen-Yers, including the Jeremiah Fellowship, a one-year leadership training program that includes elements on Israel, and NewGround, a Muslim-Jewish dialogue for young professionals. Other mainstream organizations have created alternatives, and many organizations have emerged to exclusively focus on younger people.

The Center for Leadership Initiatives, founded in 2006, offers leadership fellowships, with an annual conference for the participants in Israel, including 40 North Americans, 40 Israelis, and 40 Jews from around the world. Its Charlie Award recognizes the achievements and visions of Birthright alumni, and other programs support grantees in Israel.

Birthright, to date, has funded all-expenses-paid trips to Israel for more than 160,000 young Jews; its leaders hope to help participants sustain their connection to Israel as it launches Birthright Next, a program to follow up with Birthright alumni.

Many Birthright alumni were among the 70 Gen-Yers who spent a Sunday in a Valley Village backyard two weeks ago, at "Hukkahs and Hummus: An Alternative Israel Expo." The pilot program was sponsored by the Progressive Leadership Project, and the event was very Gen-Y in a few telling ways:

During the first hour, participants and presenters sat on the grass or on a couch, schmoozing over mimosas, hookah pipes and Israeli food, according to event co-chair, Marc Sigal, a 26-year-old Internet business developer, who got turned on to Israel on a Birthright trip.

The next couple hours offered a potpourri of conversations -- not top-down sessions -- lead by Israel-oriented activists. The usual suspects, such as StandWithUs, AIPAC and Americans For Peace Now, led political and educational discussions, and an Israeli soldier shared his story. A discussion on technology attracted a huge crowd, as did a text study. Progressive, humanitarian and Gen-Y-oriented groups showed another side of involvement, while fine arts, Israel in film and sports/social action organizations rounded out the conversations, which were followed by more food and schmoozing.

It is an inclusive model that might work well for a broader spectrum of the community."The Jewish people have had a really complex dance with Zion for thousands of years," said Gordis, who runs Center for Leadership Initiatives from Vancouver. "I think the benefit this generation is bringing to the conversation is that they are adding nuance where it has not been so nuanced. Now, we have to make sure the nuances they bring get air to breathe, rather than get quashed."

And he thinks the Gen-Yers will benefit from being pulled into open discussion, because they will begin to understand that their interests can and are being addressed by established institutions. Gordis wants to see more efforts focused not only on meeting the Gen-Yers' needs, but on teaching them about how to be productive and educated participants in the wider community's ongoing dialog.

Gordis is optimistic that with the right kind of communal support, this generation will come through for Israel.

"Is the landscape going to look like it did 20 years ago? No, it's not," he said. "I don't know what it's going to be like in five or 10 years in terms of how young American Jews are relating to Israel."

"But if we sit here and just be critical of them, we're cutting off our nose to spite our face. They are getting the car keys," he said. "We are going to be partners."


WEB RESOURCES:
The Forest Foundation
http://www.theforestfoundation.net/

Moishe House:
http://www.moishehouse.org/

Center for Leadership Initiatives:
http://www.leadingup.org/

Professional Leaders Project:
http://www.jewishleaders.net/web/guest/home

Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation from
Israel, by Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman
http://www.acbp.net/About/PDF/Beyond%20Distancing.pdf

Progressive Jewish Alliance:
http://www.pjalliance.org/

American Jewish Committee Access Young Leaders:
http://www.ajc.org/site/?c=ijITI2PHKoG&b=1289765

New Israel Fund:
http://www.nif.org/

Birthright Israel-Taglit:
http://www.birthrightisrael.com/

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