Despite the Eilat tragedy, Israel programs heal

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-9-12

Last week’s Eilat tragedy is a nightmare scenario those of us working in informal education dread.  A troubled participant on an extended Israel experience program, William Hershkovitz, murdered Armando Abed, a 33-year-old sous-chef at Eilat’s Leonard Club hotel, in a workplace dispute. Security forces then shot and killed Hershkovitz.  Acting responsibly, the Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky promised a full inquiry into how this troubled young man ended up on the “Israel Way” program, which is part of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s successful Masa initiative, which has subsidized 70,000 young Jews’ extended stays in Israel since 2003.

I can save Sharansky and his JAFI colleagues time and money. The only inquiry really required should scrutinize the hotel’s security training — if initial reports are accurate and Hershkovitz wrestled the gun away from a security guard. Beyond that, neither the Jewish Agency nor “Israel Way” is responsible. Moreover, I regret to say, a repeat of such violence, while as rare and anomalous as this first incident, is not really preventable.

Modern Western civilization craves order, abhors messiness and takes the smooth functioning of life for granted.  When something goes wrong, we demand explanations, establish commissions, and try to prevent a recurrence. But screening procedures for such programs are necessarily cursory – resources are limited, the focus is on recruitment more than rejection, and, as in all successful educational interactions, goodwill is generally assumed.<

Examining the far more rigorous college selection process also proves that these processes are not predictors.  Some troubled people are well-practiced in covering up their violent tendencies. Sometimes, disturbed behavior emerges abruptly, with little warning.  Moreover, the mental health crisis is so acute among young people today that it is virtually impossible to distinguish the many unhappy ones from the violently disturbed.

We tend to overlook it in two worlds I inhabit – the Israel program world and the university universe – but those of us working with twenty-somethings are working with masses of emotionally fragile young people. So many of our program participants and students have scarred psyches, are traumatized by broken families, and take psychotropic drugs just to endure.  We are experiencing but mostly ignoring epidemic levels of loneliness, rootlessness, alienation, anxiety, depression, and all kinds of dysfunction. My friends who are university mental health counselors, camp directors, social workers or psychologists working with this age group are deeply worried.  By contrast, universities in particular appear to be in denial about this widespread and acute problem.

At first glance, this epidemic does not make sense. Even amid this prolonged recession, our society is the wealthiest and freest society in history. Never before have so many people enjoyed so much autonomy, so much prosperity, so many toys, so many prerogatives. This good life and these extraordinary liberties were supposed to facilitate the pursuit of happiness, not the spread of misery.

But something is seriously wrong. Too many are overdosing on ultimately unsatisfying indulgences, on alienating technologies, on illusory consumer choices.

In many ways, Israel programs are responses to this mass misery. The programs do occasionally stress some participants and Israel experiences cannot substitute for the serious psychological counseling some need. But as facilitators in the process of identity formation, the programs’ popularity stems from their widespread success in propelling most participants on journeys toward greater rootedness, deeper meaning, and more fulfilling lives.

Natan Sharansky himself has written so eloquently in his 2008 book Defending Identity about the way being a part of a larger communal story helps anchor individuals, most of whom ultimately want their lives to count for something significant, grander than simply surviving.

In his latest book, The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness is Actually its Greatest Strength, my friend Rabbi Daniel Gordis makes the powerful case for Zionism itself, saying that Israel stands for a vision of enriching, anchoring, traditional particularism rather than empty, alienating, modernist universalism.  Gordis shows how embracing a national model, in this case a Jewish national model, is actually the most effective way to build a life of idealism that does the world good. By being comfortable in your own skin, by being connected to your own people, by buying into your own particular values framework, you can then change the world for the better, and service humanity – working with your communal comrades and building on enduring traditions.

Positing a Zionist response to North American emptiness requires subtlety not arrogance. Every individual has a biography and no one’s personal misery should become cannon fodder for ideologues.  Moreover, championing this aspect of Zionist ideology as an answer to a North American challenge should not send Zionist ideologues back to the old negating-the-Diaspora model. A true partnership encourages constructive criticism as well as splendid synthesis. Just as Zionism seeks an ideal mix of the best of the West and the gems of Judaism, so, too, both the Israeli and North American Jewish communities should seek to learn from each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

Still, there is a cost to the identity annihilation, to the cutting of ties, that the American sociologist Robert Bellah has identified as the defining model for maturing in America, especially among elites.  The notion that growing up entails going beyond tradition, family, values, community rather than growing into them has helped spread this psychic stress.

So, yes, the commission investigating the Eilat murder should do its work. But the commission should not overreact and burden Israel programs with unnecessary, unwieldy admissions procedures that cannot predict that which remains unpredictable. And the commission must remember that these anchoring, orienting, meaning-seeking, Israel programs are offering important, compelling, creative solutions to the broader problem which so many responsible adults are simply ignoring or denying.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish identity and the Challenges of Today,”  his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press in the fall.

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Educating the spoiled brats of Jewish history

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 6-3-10

Halleluyah! Natan Sharansky is trying to reform the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). Since he became chairman of this quasi-governmental agency, uniquely poised to bridge the State of Israel with Jewish communities around the world, he has pushed an exciting new vision for the infamously bureaucratic agency.
Sharansky views the Jewish Agency as the spearhead for a global Jewish push revitalizing Jewish identity. If in the 20th century JAFI’s great accomplishment was saving Jewish lives, the 21st century has to be about saving Jewish souls.

Now that may sound jarring to us, because so many of us are secular, sophisticated, technocratic and uncomfortable with “soul talk.” But if we don’t have the passion, if we don’t see that building Jewish identity is ultimately about saving souls, then how do we get the gumption to do what must be done?

Words such as “change” and “identity” can be empty slogans, amorphous and lacking meat on the bones. Our vision of Jewish identity and our mission must be coherent, so that we know how to get traction on this important issue.

The modern Zionist movement tried to solve “the Jewish problem” of the 19th century – anti-Semitism. The Jewish problem for most (not all) Jews today is the opposite: we are being Loved to Death. Some 2.5 million young Israelis, 1.7 million young North American Jews, and most of the 600,000 young Jews from other countries enjoy unprecedented freedom – and prosperity. But too many perceive that freedom as “negative freedom,” freedom from – freedom from ties, from tradition, from community and from responsibilities (and many of their parents aren’t much better). We’re being loved to death in once-hostile communities that now happily celebrate our children’s marriages to theirs, and we’re being loved to death, because while we can enter the modern world freely, we often enter by voluntarily relinquishing our Jewish identity.

Our young people, in secular Israel and abroad, in this age of “I” not “us,” are entranced by the new cosmopolitanism cross-bred with a hyper-individualism, what Sharansky calls a false choice between Jewish values and universal values. That false choice is reinforced by an equally false promise that we can transcend national boundaries, cut ourselves off from tradition and simply be islands unto ourselves, encased within our own technological test tubes.

Isn’t that the Apple promise, to each his own iPod and iPhone, to each his own customized Thinkpad?

And we Jews lap it up. You know the old joke. Show me someone who says, “I’m a Christian” and you know he’s Christian. Show me someone who says, “I’m a Muslim” and you know he’s Muslim. Show me someone who says, “I’m just a human being” – he’s Jewish.

We are, New Republic writer Leon Wieseltier says, “the spoiled brats of Jewish history,” more comfortable than ever before, but more selfish and self-indulgent than ever before. Our great mass crime, Wieseltier argues, isn’t intermarriage, but ignorance. One of the most educated generations in Jewish history in secular terms is one of the least educated Jewishly.

In 2008, U.S. President Barack Obama showed that liberals shouldn’t be afraid of the “three Fs” – family, faith and flag. We have to build our identity on what we might call the “three mems” – mishpachah (family), morashah (heritage) and moledet (homeland). This holy trinity, if you will, roots us, consecrating our personal and national identities, teaching us about our past, inspiring us in the present and orienting us toward the future. JAFI – and other Jewish communal institutions – must express and foster this vision, with education at its core.

We can find salvation in more Jewish education, because Jewish education isn’t just about learning the facts, but about mastering life. Jewish education isn’t just about thinking, it’s also about doing. Jewish education isn’t just about understanding the world, but fixing it – tikun olam. Jewish education isn’t just about skill-building, it’s about identity-building. In short, Jewish education is values education – and that’s the added value we need, and must provide. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently told JAFI’s board of governors: “This is not an exercise in education. It’s an exercise in survival.”

The Case for Change: A Challenge to the Jewish Agency

By Gil Troy, eJewish Philanthropy, 3-7-10

Change is easy to endorse and hard to implement – if it’s easy, it means it’s not being done right. If it’s not systematic, it’s sloppy; if it’s cosmetic, it’s fleeting. Today, new directions must be forged, tough choices must be made, and new ways of doing business must be developed.

Let’s be frank, most North American Jews that I know do not know what the Jewish Agency is or does. And a surprising number of Israelis I know say – with anger in their voices – that the Jewish Agency should become extinct like the dinosaur it is.

Moreover, while most Jewish Agency employees I meet are extraordinary – idealistic, passionate – they work for a bureaucracy with a terrible reputation, with what seems to be a toxic corporate culture. When many people pass Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem, rather than seeing what I see: a building rooted in Jewish history, pulsating with the energy of the Zionist mission and like Israel itself, a key to our salvation as Jews and human beings – they imagine hearing the ticktock, ticktock of bureaucrats marking time and the clink, clink, whirl, whirl of good money flushing down the drain.

We could kid ourselves and say, “well, it’s a PR problem, all this could be solved by some re-branding” but historic conditions have changed – demanding an adjustment in the Jewish Agency’s mission as well.

The modern Zionist Movement tried to solve “The Jewish Problem” of the 19th century – anti-Semitism. The Jewish Problem for Most (not all) today – is the opposite: We are being Loved to Death. Most Jews- thankfully – enjoy unprecedented freedom – and prosperity. But too many of them understand that freedom as “negative freedom” freedom from – freedom from ties, from tradition, from community, from responsibilities.

We can find salvation in more Jewish education because Jewish education is not just about learning the facts but mastering life, Jewish education is not just about thinking but doing, Jewish education is not just about understanding the world but fixing it – Tikun Olam – Jewish education is not just about skill-building but identity-building. In short Jewish education is values education – and that is the added value we need – and must provide. I agree with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “This is not an exercise in education; it’s an exercise in survival.”

And that is where the Jewish Agency has started to come in – and must come in more – more effectively, systematically, and publicly. Natan Sharansky’s vision of the Jewish Agency as the spearhead for a global Jewish push revitalizing Jewish identity is what’s needed. If in the 20th Century, the Jewish Agency’s great accomplishment was saving Jewish lives, the 21st century must be about saving Jewish souls.

Like “change” “identity” can be an empty slogan, amorphous, lacking meat on the bones. Our vision of Jewish identity and our mission must be coherent so we know how to get traction on this important issue.

The Jewish Agency is uniquely positioned to educate for a modern Jewish identity focusing on peoplehood with Israel at its center – with the Jewish Agency carving out peoplehood platforms for identity-building throughout the Jewish world. This is a logical evolution – the elements are all there – but the branding and focus are lacking.

There is no Jewish Agency, no rationale for a Jewish Agency, without peoplehood. The Jewish Agency must be the global hothouse for nurturing those values, proud of its worldwide reach and its own roots in Eretz Yisrael the land of the Jewish people, and its commitment to the greatest collective Jewish undertaking of the last century, the State of Israel. We have to explain the idea of Peoplehood as the Jewish superglue, the sense of shared destiny uniting us, in good times and bad. We have to build on our family feeling, that insidery “MOT” – “member of the tribe” feeling that even many seemingly assimilated, alienated hipster Jews in New York have. The beauty of peoplehood – and of Zionism, the power of Israel and of our Jewish values, is that, when done right, we make our tribalism transcendent. We move from solidarity to idealism, from we are one to “ani v’atah neshanaheh et ha olam” – you and I will change the world.

Just as drug abuse counselors call marijuana the Gateway drug, opening the way for all kinds of others we, levhadeel, should look at Peoplehood as the gateway Jewish value, opening the way to many other dimensions of identity. We will only restore it as a gateway value through education.

Decades ago, when Rabbi Yitz Greenberg requested increased Federation allocations to Jewish education in New York, the leaders hesitated. “We don’t have enough money to do what you request. What should we do? Shall we close down Jewish community centers, and the Jewish hospitals, nursing homes, and homes for the aged that we subsidize?” “Yes, close them down!” Greenberg insisted. “But do you know what I’ll teach the children who will receive the Jewish education that you will sponsor? I’ll teach them to open up community centers, hospitals, nursing homes and homes for the aged!”

Change requires bold strategic vision, some signature programs as key tactics, and, most important, serious transformation in the trenches. Ronald Reagan was better at articulating a vision of change and focusing on a few signature programs, Margaret Thatcher implemented more fundamental changes from the top down – for better or worse.

In the Jewish world, we need “big bold ideas,” in the words of Jerry Silverman of UJ (oops, I mean JFNA – you see organizations do change). We’ve seen JNF go green; the American Jewish Committee go from being a sha-shtill organization of American Jewish shtadlanim to a muscular defender of the Jewish people; Boston Federation lead in the push toward identity and education for 20 years; and the Montreal Federation’s Gen J initiative focus on 5 gateways leading to better Jewish living: formal Jewish education; camps and youth programming; family and adult programming; Israel experiences; and arts and culture. The idea is to focus less on the hardware and more on updating communal software, trying to reach Jews at all stages of the life-cycle, but especially Jewish youth.

My uncle, who was in the advertising business for 50 years says the one constant in his career was change. My father-in-law, who’s in real estate, keeps a running list of all the rock-solid tenants like Canada’s legendary Eaton’s department store or Eastern Airlines that would never go out of business, but did. I have a Lubavitch friend who is a savvy internet marketer. He changed from his PC to an Apple – because, he said, change is good, it shakes you up. To effect change, the leaders of the Jewish Agency, this College of Cardinals of the Jewish people, will need the discipline of the Congress during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the fluidity of the British parliament under Thatcher, the courage of Ben Gurion and this very agency on the eve of independence in 1948 and the wisdom of our ancient Sanhedrin.


Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” the views expressed here are his own.

Gil Troy: A living advertisement for Zionism’s redemptive power

Center Field: A living advertisement for Zionism’s redemptive power

By GIL TROY, Jerusalem Post, 5-18-09

I applaud American reformers’ push to improve the Jewish Agency’s governance and purge politics from the selection of its chairman. But today’s political appointee is the right man for the job. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s nomination of the legendary human rights activist Natan Sharansky to be the Jewish Agency’s chairman is a gift to the agency and the Jewish people. After a lifetime of serving not just the Jewish people but humanity, Sharansky should not have to ask anyone for votes. Those of us who care about Israel, Zionism and the Jewish future should beg him to serve.

The Jewish Agency is at an awkward moment in its proud history. It was established on August 11, 1929, fulfilling the 1922 League of Nations Mandate for Palestine proposing a “Jewish agency” representing world Jewry to help establish “the Jewish National Home… in Palestine.” In 1948, the actual state superseded this proto-state. Today, with that historic mission accomplished, the agency promotes aliya, Jewish-Zionist education and Israel-Diaspora partnerships.

Most Jewish Agency employees I meet are extraordinary. Be they working for Partnership 2000 to partner 250 Diaspora communities with 50 Israeli regions, serving in the World Zionist Organization or developing MASA to bring young Jews for sustained periods of work or study in Israel, they are idealistic, passionate, visionary. Unfortunately, they work for a bureaucracy with a terrible reputation.

I have met the occasional Jewish Agency hack who sends a staffer ahead to check that he has a microphone to address two dozen people. Then, having wasted staff resources, this apparatchik – with a rumored penchant for expensive travel – alienates all the young, enthusiastic Zionists he addresses with his dismissive arrogance. As a result, when many people pass Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem they imagine hearing the ticktock, ticktock of bureaucrats marking time and the clink, clink, whirl, whirl of good money flushing down the drain.

To me, the building pulsates with the energy of the Zionist mission. It is rooted in Jewish history, throbbing with idealists, and like Israel itself, a key to our salvation as Jews and human beings. Just as Israel’s occasional mistakes should not define Zionism, the occasional pen pusher should not tarnish the agency’s reputation.

DURING THESE difficult times, with the Jewish Agency seeking more of two key “M”s – money and a focused mission – Natan Sharansky can save it, while using this platform to revitalize Zionism. Just because Sharansky’s story is familiar, we should never take for granted the miracle he not only lived through but shaped. When I visited the Soviet Union in 1985, Sharansky had been imprisoned since his March 1977 arrest on trumped-up charges. Few of us imagined that within a year he would be free and that within a few years, the Soviet Union would implode.