Jewish Journal

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

by Amy Klein Religion Editor

Posted on May. 15, 2008 at 6:00 pm

On March 30, Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, Ray Mallel and Allen Shamooilian (top row) boarded El Al to Tel Aviv. They landed in Israel March 31, beginning their three and a half day charity mission on behalf of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel's Israel Relief Fund. For the next three days, the temple leaders traveled from north to south, visiting 12 cities and one Israel Defense Forces base. Photo courtesy Sephardic Temple Tephireth 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. "Only by hearing each other do we realize that we are one people," she said.

Other rabbis move beyond politics.

"It's music and art and culture and history and people and right wing and left wing," said Bouskila, whose Westwood congregation includes many older Israelis. "They appreciate the connection. For older people who can't travel, this is all they've got -- it's their way of feeling they're in the Israeli scene."

For the past two years, leading up to Israel's 60th anniversary, Bouskila has offered a lecture series with topics ranging from the history of Israel to the people of Israel, and he has invited artists to help broaden the perception of Israel. Even recognizing poverty in Israel has been a way to connect his community to the country. For example, since 2002, Sephardic Temple has raised more than $2 million for an Israel relief fund to aid families living in poverty in 15 places all over Israel, and congregants have traveled to Israel to make personal the contributions.

Bouskila said he doesn't always get involved in politics because "when support becomes too tied to a certain issue, it becomes endangered."

Yet the political situation will always be the elephant in the room, since, unfortunately, the conflict is not going away anytime soon. And for some liberal-minded Jewish communities, who place a high value on human rights, the discussion can be difficult.

"It's hard to be able to talk about Israel in language that's meaningful," said Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah, a Reform congregation in Woodland Hills. Vogel, the president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, called American Jews' connection to Israel a "bifurcated" relationship. "We can talk about Israel being a homeland of the Jewish people, but we have trouble talking about the politics of today -- they struggle with policies of Israel."

Connecting [congregants'] values to the reality on the ground is essential, though, Rosove said.

"As rabbis, we don't have to sell Israel but to see it as it is -- with its strengths and its weaknesses, without our compromising our liberal democratic values, if that's who we are," he said.

Rosove noted that Israel is a liberal democratic society, and even in "these challenging times," there is a way to highlight those values.

Vogel said he "does not talk about politics from the bimah, whether Israeli or American," but focuses on "issues" instead. The synagogue, he said, is an important place to focus on issues.

"I believe people have to talk about the issues," Vogel said. "And that's the role of a synagogue -- to provide a place where people can engage in civil language, to be honest and critical."

Vogel invites speakers from throughout the spectrum to discuss particular issues.

"I believe in issues, not platforms," he said. "If you frame it correctly, I believe they'll be interested." Israel, he said, must be talked about. "When you keep talking about it, you keep it alive."

In the end, most rabbis agree that no matter what they might say to their congregants, the real solution is all about visiting Israel.

"You can't talk about Israel until you experience Israel; it's just a different dialogue," Vogel said.

"Personal contact with Israel is the only way to do it," Rosove agreed. "I take as many members to Israel as possible -- I try to do a mission every year or two."

Birthright Israel, of course, is built on this notion, that the best way to connect young Jews to Israel is to bring them to Israel. Since 2000, they have brought 160,000 18-26-year-olds on all-expenses-paid visits to the country.

Rabbi David Wolpe of the Conservative Sinai Temple in Westwood is hoping to start such trips even younger. Sinai is creating an Israel Center, a multimillion-dollar project to give every b'nai mitzvah student a voucher to travel to Israel. It will also coordinate all of Sinai Temple's Israel programs, organize trips, bring over Israeli artists and speakers and work with college students. Sinai's congregation, Wolpe said, is "passionately pro-Israel." It also will be sending the nation's largest synagogue delegation, 225 people, to the upcoming American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington, D.C.

Still, Wolpe advises that any rabbi who wants to connect his or her congregation to Israel should bring congregants there.

"Taking people to Israel is almost a magic solution," he said.

But there are challenges to getting people to Israel, challenges that even free trips won't solve.

"American Jews are afraid," Rosove said.

Many rabbis feel that another way to connect Americans to Israel these days is to make sure the relationship isn't only one-way. Rosove pointed out that while Israel is important to the hearts and souls of Jews of the Diaspora, the Conservative and Reform movements can offer Israel a "third way," between "rampant secularism" and right-wing Orthodoxy" on "what it means to be a Jew there." Rosove says he weaves these themes into many of his sermons and discussions at Temple Israel.

"Sometimes people will say that we're too Israel-oriented," he said. "And I'll say, 'Frankly I don't think we're Israel-oriented enough.'"

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