Gil Troy at Hadassah’s 94th Annual Convention

The growing materialism and “meaninglessness” in much of American Jewry could be fought with teaching Zionism by creating savings accounts for children and teenagers to be used for eventual trips to Israel, suggested McGill University history Prof. Gil Troy.

Gil Troy

Gil Troy

Speaking on Monday, the second day of the 94th annual Hadassah convention at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, Troy and other speakers at a plenary session “Is Israel on Your Radar Screen?” bemoaned the fact that the younger Diaspora Jews are, the less likely they are to care about or identify with Israel.

The birthright program that will bring 42,000 young Jews to Israel for 10-day trips this year is excellent, said Troy, “but we have also to take personal responsibility for it and take more vacations in Israel. As the father of four young children, I know that Jewish children get more and more unnecessary gifts. Instead, think of Zionism as an answer for materialism. Hadassah, he suggested, can lead by organizing such savings accounts for travel to Israel. He also advocated widespread teaching of Hebrew to American Jews.

The convention’s 2,000 delegates were polled instantaneously using electronic devices that captured their opinions. When asked whether their youngest adult child was just as attached to Israel as they were, only half answered yes, and 85 percent felt that Jews in their 20s and 30s are not as attached to Israel as their elders.

Prof. Steven Cohen, a researcher in Jewish social policy at the Hebrew Union College, conducted his own scientific study of non-Orthodox American Jews who constitute 90% of Americans who identify themselves as Jews.

According to all measures, the younger they are, the less attachment they feel about Israel. “It’s a terrible tragedy. The only exception of less activity compared to their elders is that younger Jews are more likely to speak to non-Jews about Israel, but this is because they know more non-Jews.”

Because the poll queried people who identified as Jews, Cohen said it “overrepresents Jewish attachment to Israel because there are many intermarried and assimilated Jews who do not identify themselves as such.”

The serious decline in donations to Jewish causes since the 1980s reflects the fact that unmarried intermarried Jews are less inclined to financially support Jewish and Israeli causes, Cohen said.

“The strongest predictor of attachment to Israel is if you have a Jewish marriage partner. There is a corrosive effect on Jewish identity in the US. You can’t sustain ethnicity if don’t have Jewish friends, neighbors and spouses, but two-thirds of young Jews have a non-Jewish romantic partner.

“Assimilation and intermarriage is at the root of declining identification by Jews with and support for Israel. But an antidote is to travel to Israel, and the more you come, the better.”

Cohen also endorsed Jewish financial support for Jewish summer camps and youth movements, independent prayer groups and Jewish learning.

Rabbi Eli Stern, director of special projects at the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, said that there is a “profound identity shift among young Diaspora Jews from assumed Jewish identify to asking why one should be Jewish at all.”

The serious decline of the Conservative Movement, which always supported Israel, Stern said, reflects this disillusionment.

While political support for Israel in the general American population remains strong, using Israel as a source for collective Jewish identity has taken a tremendous hit, Stern added.

Former Israeli cabinet minister, refusenik and human rights activist in the Soviet Union, Natan Sharansky, who is now chairman of the Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, said at the convention that the growing view among young Jews that freedom and peace can be achieved only by rejecting ethnicity, nationalism and faith was dangerous.

“They think that freedom and identity are on opposite sides, that there no values worth dying for. There must be no hesitation in saying proudly that we are for justice and human rights, but the only way we can defend and protect Israel is going back to our roots and being proud Jews,” he said, earning a standing ovation.

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Obama gets Zionism – why don’t our youth?

Canadian Jewish News, Thursday, 03 July 2008 

True, at the annual meeting of AIPAC, the legendary American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in Washington, D.C., the most powerful American politicians tell some of the most powerful American Jews exactly what they want to hear.

True, at the meeting in June, Barack Obama overstated his commitment to a united Jerusalem, and then backtracked, causing great controversy. True, during the heat of a presidential campaign, anything one says that is positive about one candidate is perceived to be an endorsement of him, regardless of the writer’s intent. Still, it’s worth focusing on Obama’s remarkable riff about Zionism – and challenging Jews in the United States and Canada to learn at least this from America’s Democratic presidential nominee.

Early on in his address, Obama recalled the influence of a Jewish counsellor of his at a summer camp the young Barack attended in the early 1970s. Obama said:  “I first became familiar with the story of Israel when I was 11 years old. I learned of the long journey and steady determination of the Jewish people to preserve their identity through faith, family and culture. Year after year, century after century, Jews carried on their traditions, and their dream of a homeland, in the face of impossible odds.”

Obama explained that as a young man cut off from his roots, not knowing his father, this quest to return and this deep sense of rootedness moved him. “So I was drawn to the belief that you could sustain a spiritual, emotional and cultural identity,” Obama proclaimed. “And I deeply understood the Zionist idea – that there is always a homeland at the centre of our story.”

There are three powerful ideas embedded in this short paragraph. Obama offers a compelling “holy trinity” if you will, explaining some of the ways Jews have maintained our identity for thousands of years, despite adversity. Obama talks about “faith, family and culture.” He speaks about one’s “spiritual, emotional, and cultural identity.” I could add history, the land, and tradition as well. I talk about national and historical identity, too. But what’s important is that Obama recognizes Judaism’s multi-dimensionality. Judaism is not “just” a religion. Jews are a people sharing a common past, certain cultural traits, enduring family values, a binding faith, an interconnected fate in the present, and, we hope, an inspiring and glorious future.

Second, in this speech and elsewhere, Obama talks about the common modern quest for roots, for an identity. He understands that there’s more to life than making money and spending money. True success, true fulfilment, comes from knowing who you are – having a deep, enduring, historical identity.

Both the United States and Canada are remarkable countries, welcoming immigrants throughout the world. But both countries, particularly with today’s modern consumerist popular culture, encourage a kind of historical amnesia, a disconnect from our Old World past. True, Canada is officially multicultural and more sensitive to those concerns than the United States, but the lure of the “I,” of the here-and-now of modern culture, overrides those rhetorical and ideological differences, enticing all of us to jettison our historical identities.

Finally, Obama appreciates the value of having a homeland as an anchor, as a repository of our past, our values, our story – and our future. We need to imagine sometimes what it must have been like for our grandparents and great-grandparents who were cut off from that homeland. We need to imagine sometimes what it must be like for kids like the young Obama, who, while welcomed into the American heartland, know that they are different, know that they have another identity and wish to reconcile it all.

We need to ask, “Do we always remember to keep our homeland – the homeland of Israel – ‘at the centre of our story’ as modern Jews?” Have too many of us, in the comforts of North America, forgotten how lucky we are to have Israel as an identity anchor? How many of our well-educated, sophisticated 40-year-olds speak as eloquently as Obama did about the power of the Zionist idea historically – and to us personally? And if Obama is willing to say “Yes we can” to our Zionism, how come so many of our youth are not?