Two Israeli educators arrived here this week to encourage young Jews to take an interest in Israel as it marks its 60th birthday. Their arrival coincides with the release of a survey that underscores the fact that younger Jews have less of an emotional tie to Israel.
The survey, conducted by the American Jewish Committee between Nov. 6 and Nov. 23, found that that only 22 percent of American Jews ages 18-40 said they felt “very close” to Israel. The national average for American Jews of all ages was 30 percent, down from 37 percent a year ago. In addition, 63 percent of those 18-40 agreed with the sentence, “Caring about Israel is very important to my being a Jew.” This compares with a national average for Jews of all ages of 69 percent – which is down from 74 percent last year, 79 percent in 2005 and 80 percent in 2000. The survey had an error factor of 3 percent.
“The younger the Jew, the less likely you are to find a very intense identification with Israel,” said David Singer, director of research at the AJC.
Haim Shalom, one of the two educators here from Melitz, an independent non-profit Jerusalem-based provider of informal educational services, said he was aware of similar surveys but believes they may be flawed.
“My impression based on Jews I meet in America is that we are mistaking American Jews’ disagreement with [Israeli] government policy for apathy towards Israel,” he explained. “I really don’t believe that American Jews are less committed to being engaged with Israel than they were. But I believe that connection is now more intellectual and less emotional.”
Shalom, 29, who made aliyah five years ago from Manchester, England, said his goal in speaking with Jewish youngsters here is “not to make them move to Israel” or to “sell an ideology” but to “help people engage.”
“That doesn’t mean that they need to support any particular position of the Olmert government,” he said. “I don’t see my job as coming to indoctrinate anyone but to encourage people to take an interest [in Israel]. And if the surveys find that people are less interested, that is what gives my job meaning. If they were interested in the first place, then what am I doing here. I believe I have a chance and that this is a worthwhile effort.”
Shellie Dickstein, coordinator of educational services for SAJES, a central agency for Jewish education on Long Island, said it has “always been a challenge for Jewish educators to make students engage with Israel. I think we as educators have not done a good enough job helping students to understand the issues, the culture of Israel and the life that Israelis lead. So how could they engage in topics they don’t understand?”
Shalom and a fellow Melitz educator, Jared Goldfarb, planned to spend this week meeting with students and parents at a half-dozen congregations: the Midway Jewish Center in Syosset; the South Huntington Jewish Center in Melville; Temple Israel of Great Neck; the Jericho Jewish Center; the Woodbury Jewish Center and the Plainview Jewish Center.
This weekend, Goldfarb was to be the scholar-in-residence at the South Huntington Jewish Center and Shalom was to be the scholar at Temple Israel in Great Neck.
And on Sunday, Goldfarb and Shalom plan to work with educators of the Conservative movement during a daylong program at the Midway Jewish Center. Dickstein said the event, Yom Iyum, is for the principals of Conservative Hebrew schools and their staffs.
The day is devoted to “thinking more deeply about designing Israel education in the classroom,” Dickstein said.