December 2, 1999
Two Los Angelenas travel to Israel through the new "Birthright Israel" program
Now, after decades of inner-focused effort to build up the new land and survive, the Jewish state is rediscovering its distant relatives and, what's more, is ready to accept them, on their own terms, as equals.
Stretching out a hand to the brethren abroad has become a sudden Israeli cottage industry. For the first time, a cabinet minister for "World Jewish Affairs" has been appointed. Senior politicians and think tanks vie to come up with imaginative plans to redefine relations between the world's two largest Jewish communities in Israel and the United States.
In a reversal of fortunes, Israel is putting up $100 million to support an educational program for Diaspora youth through the "Birthright Israel" program.
Not least, Israel's foreign ministry has made a major commitment in staff and money for new outreach programs, most notably the Young Jewish Leadership Diplomatic Seminar.
The inaugural run of the 25-day summer seminar has concluded and the newly coined "diplomats," most in their twenties and hailing from 18 countries, have returned from Israel to their hometowns.
Among the 34 participants were two young professional women from Los Angeles, who came home with a new appreciation and knowledge of Israel -- both its strengths and its unresolved problems.
Neither Lauren Rutkin, 29, or Marjan Keypour, 28, arrived at the seminar as novices. Both had visited Israel twice before, and their jobs -- Rutkin as associate director of the local AIPAC office, and Keypour as a staff member of the Anti-Defamation League's community services department -- inevitably have a Zionist component.
In that sense, they differ from most of their American peers, to whom the Jewish state is "not central, not terribly important," said Rutkin.
Even for vacation trips, noted Keypour, most American twentysomethings "want a paradise atmosphere, not the war zone depicted on their television."
But even for the relatively knowledgeable participants from Los Angeles, the daily dawn-to-dusk sessions were intensive learning experiences.
They heard, and questioned, an array of experts on Israel's foreign relations, the peace process, the country's Arabs, Hebrew poetry, movies, theater, economics, media, jurisprudence, academic life, environment, urban sprawl, religion and more.
"There was no sugar coating of existing problems," said Rutkin, and Keypour agreed that "they presented the facts and allowed us to draw our own conclusions."
The two women did encounter the old-line Zionist perspective in the person of the formidable President Ezer Weizman, and felt some resentment at his insistence that Jewish life in the Diaspora was meaningless.
As often happens in such settings, the two Angelenas learned as much about differing Jewish viewpoints from their fellow participants from different countries as from the lecturers.
"I found out that such terms as 'Conservative' or 'Reform' Judaism mean different things in different countries," said Keypour. "Religious pluralism was the number one topic of debate."
What both women missed were personal contacts with Israelis of their own age, and Keypour added that the program was a mite too cerebral.
Future participants, particularly if first-time visitors to Israel, "should experience the country also on a more spiritual and emotional level... to smell the flowers and touch the stones of the Western Wall," Keypour said.
But overall, Rutkin said, she returned feeling "more connected with Israel and the Jewish people, and energized in my commitment."
She will apply her experiences to encourage the next generation of young leaders to spend time in Israel, starting with her three sisters. On a personal note, she has decided to celebrate a belated bat mitzvah in November.
Keypour, who arrived in this country 11 years ago from Iran, said she would focus her efforts on the young people in her own community, whose indifferent attitudes toward Israel mirrors those of other young Jews in Los Angeles. She also plans to talk to the Sinai Temple New Leadership, on whose board she serves.
Arthur Lenk, consul for communications and public affairs at the local Israel consulate-general, sees the seminar as a partial antidote to young American Jews, who view Israel as "just another country. "
"On our side, it has become clear that Israel does not solely exist for its own citizens, but has no less a responsibility for Jews everywhere," said Lenk, who himself made aliyah from the United States.
"It's part of Israel's maturation process that we can say, sure we want you to settle here, but if you don't come, that doesn't make you any less of a Jew," he observed.
Lenk, who interviewed 15 applicants for this year's pilot program said that the feedback had been positive enough to plan for a similar seminar next summer.