May 15, 2008
New generation has a new take on Israel
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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.