‘You must be so relieved that everyone is safe,” greeted a colleague as I returned to JFK with 26 American students after their summer fellowship in Israel. As co-director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships, a Jewish leadership program for young Israelis and Americans, this summer has been anything but a relief for me. I spent the first three weeks of the conflict in my home in New York, my stomach in knots about every aspect of our group’s itinerary, reassuring parents of our efforts to keep their American children safe. And then I arrived in Israel where I encountered the emotional disruption of this war as experienced by young Israelis. Spending time in Israel brought into focus the vast difference between how Israeli and American Jews are dealing with this conflict.
While Americans have been quick to turn to political analysis and long-term implications, most young Israelis I spoke with are instead focused on the country’s fragile emotional state. As individuals they do not have the energy to make grand statements or pontificate. They are in the midst of a traumatic experience where all they can do is cope.
In recent years the organized Jewish community has sounded alarm bells about the growing divide between American and Israeli Jews. We have created myriad programs to facilitate a closer connection, particularly for young Jews. Yet in this time of crisis we seem to be missing one of the most basic solutions for bridging the chasm of experience. Now is the time to welcome Israelis to share their vulnerabilities. Now is the time to offer an empathetic ear on a personal basis.
An Israeli working at a Jewish summer camp recounted being instructed by the American director to avoid talking about the conflict for fear of upsetting the American campers. The young camp counselor felt censored, and this intensified the distance she feels between herself and American Jews. Why do we ask young Israelis to hide their anxiety and upset? Can we invite Israelis to safely share their unedited experiences with us?
A young Israeli who returned to Israel in the middle of the conflict after a high school graduation trip overseas shared with me an interesting insight. Though he and his friends are comfortable criticizing their government when they are at home, he found the need to respond differently when talking about the conflict with tourists. The need to “explain himself” limited his ability to offer any nuance or express his real feelings. Israelis should not have to talk to American Jews in the same tone that they speak with tourists who have “no context.”
Recently, in my Facebook feed I was saddened by an exchange between a young Israeli soldier and his American friend. The American, a recent college graduate, posted a strong criticism of Israel. In response, the Israeli expressed pain that a fellow Jew could regard him so harshly. He asked of his American friend, “When did you decide that we aren’t worth talking to?” His heartfelt question indicates how much the relationship with American Jewry matters to young Israelis. They need to know we care now.
The isolation and abandonment many young Israelis expressed to me this summer reminded me of grief — an intimate and personal pain. At times, Israel felt like a house of mourning and I a visitor offering my condolences. When I was 13 years old, my infant brother died. Our mirrors were covered, we sat on low boxes and half-eaten cakes filled our dining table. I recall the awkward body language of my friends who had never been to a shiva house. I got the sense that they were scared to sit with me and my pain. Perhaps they sensed that, at its depths, sadness is contagious. I appreciated those who showed up, whether or not they knew the right thing to say. The gesture of a visit was enough to help me feel less alone.
Many American Jews feel insecure about reaching out to Israelis now, not knowing the gesture would be welcome or an imposition. Just as visiting a mourner during shiva offers comfort, American gestures of personal outreach to Israeli friends and contacts can help. What we say is less important than the simple act of listening.
Becky Voorwinde is co-director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.