Montreal a model for other Jewish communities

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 11-10-11

The mid-October issue of the Jerusalem Report exploded as a naches-bomb for me. Naches, of course, is that delicious Yiddish word meaning delighting in someone else’s accomplishments. My delight stemmed from two articles in that issue demonstrating how young Montrealers are revitalizing the Jewish world. These articles raise the question of how did these transformative, creative juices start flowing in Montreal?

The first article described downtown Toronto’s vibrant Jewish scene, centring on the hip, Carlebachian “Annex Shul.” One co-founder, Richard Meloff, is a Torontonian who studied at McGill University in the mid-1990s, while the Annex’s spiritual leader, Yacov Fruchter, is a Montrealer who enrolled at McGill in 2002.

The second article was written by a Montrealer who is now a Jerusalemite, Justin Korda, executive director of ROI community, an international network of 600 social entrepreneurs and Jewish innovators in 40 countries, created by American Jewish philanthropist Lynn Schusterman. Korda’s article, “Innovating Jewishly,” describes how social entrepreneurs are transforming modern Jewish life at the grassroots level, social entrepreneurs being innovators who combine “the vision of a social reformer with the business acumen of an entrepreneur.”

The Montreal flavour to these welcome Jewish revolutions struck me because when I moved to Montreal in 1990, I saw a stodgy, top-heavy, uncreative Jewish community. Even the few young Jews involved in this decaying city seemed prematurely old, shmoozing their elders, not wowing their peers. Although still dining out on its Yiddishist, Zionist prime earlier in the 20th century, the city was now traumatized by Quebec separatism, which sent many young Jews packing. Montreal Judaism seemed more likely to turn Jews off than turn them – and others – on.

I asked Meloff how he explained Montreal’s success in helping to incubate exciting new Jewish expressions. “Montreal’s Jewish community was where I was when I started to feel the tug of my faith and heritage and it was a wonderful, welcoming place,” Meloff responded. He was impressed by Montreal’s ideological diversity – “there was Hillel and Chabad, Revisionist Zionists and progressive Zionists, and perhaps most critically, a tight-knit and traditional community that surrounded the school. Toronto is huge and impressive, but the community is far-flung. Montreal seemed so intimate yet still had the amenities of a significant community.” Meloff got the message that “you could do anything you wanted from a community point of view” – which soon resulted in the launching of the “Ghetto Shul,” a vibrant, intimate, student-based synagogue in Montreal which has inspired – and helped populate – Toronto’s “Annex Shul.”

Fruchter notes that Montreal’s traditionalism provides such solid grounding for Jewish life in the city, including “a fairly strong knowledge base,” as well as “strong Holocaust education and a commitment to Israel.” He also draws inspiration from leading activist Orthodox rabbis such as Rabbi Reuben Poupko and Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz. Fruchter appreciates the “Moroccan (French) element of the Jewish community,” which “has remained distinct while adding some ‘cool’ and spicy flavour to the overall community,” as well as the “fertile ground for cross-denominational exchange” resulting from the mix of Toronto and Montreal Jews at McGill. Finally, Fruchter mentions that “Hillel and the Ghetto Shul are set up to maximize empowerment and ownership. When I was the student president of Hillel Montreal, I controlled the $50,000 program budget.”

In his article, Korda, who with his friend Sig Shore created a dynamic duo of Jewish activism during their days at McGill, added another critical element, the successful Birthright Israel program which has connected thousands of young Jews to each other and to their heritage through “transformative free trips to Israel.” Birthright Israel helped inspire the founding of the Ghetto Shul, which inspired the founding of the Annex Shul, while ROI logically flows from philanthropist Lynn Schusterman’s generous involvement with Birthright.

I would also add two important “I” words – infrastructure and investment. Montreal has a rich Jewish organizational and educational network, maintained by a strong federation and thousands of generous donors. Visionary donors such as Charles and Andy Bronfman were also critical in funding identity-oriented initiatives, small and large, which bore fruit later.

The Montreal formula, then, emerges. A traditional, literate, well-organized, and well-financed community also needs strong youth-oriented programming, empowered young leaders and an openness to new ideas. But ultimately, you need sparkplugs, young, passionate, creative people to create a new mix, putting their dynamic modern twist on our ancient, enduring, traditions.

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Gil Troy: Anti-Israeli campus activists are normalizing hate and death threats

By Gil Troy, National Post, 3-24-11

Reuters

A twidiot’s weapon.

“I want to shoot everyone in this room,” a McGill University student recently announced using his online Twitter feed, claiming he had surreptitiously “infiltrated” what was in fact an open film screening of Indoctrinate U, hosted by Conservative McGill and Libertarian McGill. “I should have brought an M16,” read another of his messages. In short toxic tweets, the student called the conservative gathering “a Zionist meeting” and a “Satanist ritual,” while sprinkling in insults about Jews.

Having taught thousands of students during 20 years at McGill, I will not allow one idiot tweeter — a twidiot, if you will — to define my McGill experience. But his story of intellectual hooliganism is sadly familiar. And the timing — during the two weeks in March that anti-Israeli activists call “Israeli Apartheid Week” — was telling. The student broadcasting this poison had breathed in the intellectual and ideological equivalent of second-hand smoke.

Fanatics and borderline personalities are feeding off the anything-goes hysteria demonizing Israel. (At Queen’s University, the student rector himself recently, and nonsensically, decried “the genocide happening in Palestine,” which he described as “perhaps the biggest human rights tragedy of my generation.”) Shrill language — and even threats — apparently now are seen as a normal part of the campus experience, both offline and online, when they are directed at the Jewish state and its supporters.

The twidiot — who has been investigated by the police, and whose name I’ll omit — does not own a gun. Therefore, McGill’s administration said nothing until the campus Tribune newspaper exposed the incident. The dean of students claimed “there was no need to advise the community of the matter because there was no danger posed to the community.” Actually, such barbs endanger cherished values, our sacred space where we should learn how to disagree without being disagreeable, and confront ideas we even may abhor peacefully, civilly.

Ultimately, these hate-tweets offer a “teachable moment” to explain what the university is for. We must explain not just what one McGill administrator called “the downside of social media,” but the upside of academic tolerance, of learning from others, of approaching issues with an open mind, not a clenched fist. If we cannot create a safe intellectual space for our students where they can express different opinions — including support for democratic Israel — we are wasting our time. We all are diminished if even one student feels politically intimidated.

This year, the president of the University of Winnipeg, Lloyd Axworthy, countered the annual assault against Israel with programs giving the Middle East conflict a “full and fair hearing as opposed to a one-sided hearing.” The principal of McGill University, Heather Munroe-Blum, responded to the toxic tweeter with a powerful statement championing “the civilizing influence of knowledge,” proclaiming “McGill stands firmly for tolerance — and just as strongly against hate.”

We in the university must uphold academic values of integrity, civility, mutual respect, authenticity, accuracy. We must cultivate a culture of ideas, preserving an island of sanity amid the polarizing blogosphere, the media carnival and a politics that scapegoats the United States and Israel. And we must teach that verbal violence harms not only the target but the judgmental partisan, so busy “infiltrating” and judging and issuing threats, there is no time to think or learn — which is what universities should be about.

National Post
giltroy@gmail.com

–  Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University in Montreal, and a visiting scholar affiliated with the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.

Becoming an Activist

By Gil Troy, The New Vilna Review, 11-28-10

I always shock my students by admitting that when I attended Harvard University as an undergraduate, class of 1982, I was shy. I always had things to say in sections but was too intimidated to speak.  As a graduate student and then a lecturer in history and literature there, I gained more confidence – I often call graduate school my finishing school. Still, during ten years at Harvard, the only time I was in the newspaper was in 1982 during a collective bout of food poisoning. Interviewed about “Quincy House Plague,” I told the Harvard Crimson that while lying on the floor retching, I could hear a chorus of others suffering through the bathroom vents and added: “It was charming.” That was the Crimson’s quotation of the day.

Teaching at McGill in the 1990s, I kept my public profile low, especially on Jewish affairs. I had been involved in the Young Judaea Zionist youth movement in high school, and worked at Camp Tel Yehudah while in graduate school. But I took refuge in my name “Gil Troy” – although my “Christian” name is Gilad, and my father was born Troyansky.  Being “Gil Troy” not “Gilad Troyansky” meant that, beyond getting warm welcomes in Greek restaurants, I was ethnically “clean.” One colleague once told me, “There are so few WASPs like us left at Harvard.” I replied, putting on my heaviest New Yawk accent, “even fewer den u tink!” And every spring, earnest young freshmen would approach me,  saying, “Professor Troy, we need to take off the next two nights” – as if we met at night – “for the Passover say-ders,” saying “seder”  slowly for my supposed non-Jewish ears. Furrowing my brow, I would ask if they were going to make up the extra work, then surprise them by saying “chag sameach.”

Truth is, I wanted to “make it” in “the real world” as a regular person. I did not want to run into extra static or stand out as a “model minority.” I was not ashamed of being Jewish. I had a rich Jewish private life but no public life.

That changed, a decade ago, due to two forces, one positive, one negative. The positive spur was the establishment of birthright Israel. When I first heard about this idea to send young Jews aged 18 to 26 to Israel for free for ten days, I feared the community was throwing money once again at the “continuity problem.” I wrote an article in Moment that if these new trips offered the same old Jewish guilt trip, they would fail.

If you criticize Jews, either you are lucky and get demonized, never to be bothered again, or you get the kind of call I got saying, “OK, big shot, help make this work.” Before I knew it, I was chairing the Montreal birthright task force, accompanying the first 200 birthright students from Montreal to Israel. Seeing how educationally sound the program was, and how much power the Israel experience had for alienated young Jews, I wrote a follow-article “Birthright Israel:  Why I Was Wrong.”

That first trip was in February 2000. In September 2000, Yasir Arafat led the Palestinians away from the Oslo peace negotiations back toward terrorism. I supported Oslo. One of the first articles I ever wrote in the Canadian Jewish News warned that if we did not build personal relations between Jews and Palestinians, in the Diaspora and Israel, then, when we hit bumps in the peace process, we would lack the necessary good will to insulate the peace process and protect it.

That Israel made such tremendous concessions during Oslo, especially bringing Arafat back, training and arming his men, was extremely significant for me. The fact that nevertheless as soon as the Palestinians resorted to terror, Israel was attacked simply for defending herself traumatized me. I felt betrayed by the Palestinians, by the hypercritical UN, and by much of the world. As things deteriorated, I smelled that ugly, stale smell of anti-Semitism shaping too much of the criticism. I did not see how we could have peace when Palestinians and their allies delegitimized Israel, attacking Israel’s right to exist, precisely when they were arguing for their national rights and most Israelis finally, belatedly, had recognized them.

Together, the birthright inspiration along with the trauma of Palestinian terrorism and rejectionism spurred my activism, and the book that I wrote “Why I Am a Zionist.” I came out publicly as a Jew, proud and loud, finding my own personal voice too. Students don’t explain “say-der” to me anymore.

Gil Troy was educated at Harvard University and is currently Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal. He is also the current Chair of the Birthirght Israel International Education Committee and a Visiting Scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC. Dr. Troy is the author of several books, including Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.



Students, legislators stand up for Israel

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 3-11-10

With many people justifiably worried about the constant attempts to delegitimize Israel on college campuses, especially in Canada, we should highlight some successes.
Recently, we have seen that being creative, passionate and edgy can help reframe the conversation about Israel. The key is to be clever, not defensive, and to master your own particular strategic terrain.

In early February, McGill University students mobilized against an unfair and misleading resolution being proposed by their student society. There has long been an unspoken ceasefire on the McGill campus, with both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli forces holding their fire, being more committed to the tradition of civility on campus – and, frankly, to the more academic atmosphere overall. A year ago, pro-Palestinian forces broke this deal, by proposing a resolution condemning Israel’s Gaza operation. Pro-Israel students mobilized and voted it down at the student society’s General Assembly.

Last Passover, pro-Palestinian forces became even more aggressive, planting 1,415 Palestinian flags and 13 Israeli flags in the central green space on campus, supposedly representing the disproportionate death toll during Israel’s Gaza operation. This dramatic display sought to politicize the entire campus environment.

The administration should never have allowed this break with tradition, which threatens to have every other group try similar antics. I have no desire to come to work and be bombarded by one undergraduate attempt after another seeking to dramatize whatever issues is trendy one season or the next.

Undeterred, the pro-Palestinian forces this year cooked up a seemingly harmless resolution demanding McGill invest ethically, which actually was a one-sided resolution targeting Israel. Although the General Assembly votes only on the “be it resolved” clauses, two “whereas” clauses singled out Israel for special opprobrium. This was an attempt to get the many people who support ethical investing to condemn Israel implicitly. Pro-Israel – and pro-civility – forces rejected these unfair terms. At the General Assembly, they voted down the two offensive (and historically inaccurate) “whereas” clauses, then passed the resolution.

Similar out-of-the-box thinking shaped a controversial web-based ad campaign, launched by the Canadian Federation of Jewish Students. Critics have called the “size doesn’t matter” video crude, vulgar and sexist. It is certainly crude and vulgar; I’m not sure if it’s sexist. But it’s also funny, attention-grabbing and speaks to college students in their language, with their sensibility. We want to speak to the “more than 80 per cent of students on a given campus who haven’t made up their minds about Israel and the Middle East,” one of the project’s creators, Noah Kochman explained. The video, which received more than 18,000 hits in its first few days, is a lure to get students learning facts about Israel.

As a professor, I wish my students got references to Aeschylus and Agamemnon. But if I want to be understood, I have to speak about Michael Jackson and Tiger Woods. Similarly, it would be great to live in a G-rated world, but our students live in an R-rated one. Kochman and his team shrewdly recognized that and spoke that language.

In a far more respectable vein, Peter Shurman, a Progressive Conservative legislator in the Ontario provincial legislature, refused to be passive in the wake of the anti-Israel week targeting campuses. Explaining that resolutions in the legislative assembly “do one thing only: they send a message, moral suasion pertinent to any given subject,” he proposed a resolution regarding something “I am passionate about” in late February. Shurman rose in chambers on Feb. 24, proclaiming: “I move that in the opinion of this House, the term Israeli ‘Apartheid Week’ is condemned as it serves to incite hatred against Israel, a democratic state that respects the rule of law and human rights, and the use of the word ‘apartheid’ in this context diminishes the suffering of those who were victims of a true apartheid regime in South Africa.” The resolution passed unanimously – and was applauded worldwide.

Edmund Burke famously noted, “All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing.” These examples show that when good people do something, evil can be defeated, or at least, rebuffed.

Jewish joy in the ghetto needs your help

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 11-12-09

The great financial meltdown of 2008 continues to wreak havoc, causing the great organizational shakedown of 2009. We should take advantage of these hard times to close institutions that only survive thanks to inertia or clever politicking. But we must ensure that worthy organizations aren’t wiped out, too.

Since 2000, Montreal’s student community has been blessed by an amazing institution called the Ghetto Shul. The jarring name – reflecting its location in the neighbourhood bordering McGill University known widely as the student “ghetto” – gives this generation of students a positive association with a word burdened by the scars of our tragic past. But making young students feel good about the word “ghetto” is only one of many ways the Ghetto Shul engages in tikkun olam, or fixing the world. At a crucial time in young Jews’ lives, the Ghetto Shul offers a welcoming, hip, inspiring, warm, Jewish space to pray and play, learn and eat, and sing and dance.

Led by a dynamic husband-and-wife team, Rabbi Leibish and Dena Hundert, the Ghetto Shul helps make Friday night what it has been for centuries – the highlight of the week, the moment to delight in welcoming the Sabbath Queen, with utter joy. Every week, dozens of Montreal students – and 20-somethings – crowd into the shul. Some are observant and lucky they can do Jewish at an institution that has become central to McGill Jewish life. Some are traditional, and might have drifted away from Jewish life at other universities but have been attracted to the shul’s friendly, intense, Kabbalat Shabbat – and it’s all-important Shabbat dinner scene. And some are uncommitted, having grown up without Shabbat dinner and all of a sudden going occasionally, or even regularly, because, believe it or not, it’s fun.

All, as Jews in the modern world, are searching for something. All are blessed and cursed by the dizzying array of choices that today’s world offers, able to be whatever they wish but overwhelmed by so many options and so few anchors. Many, unfortunately, arrive at the Ghetto Shul already Jewishly scarred, having been bored by Hebrew school, narcotized by their staid synagogue back home, or misled by their parents’ sorry example into thinking that Judaism is a thin gruel of ethnic food, juvenile holiday rituals, colourful expressions and simplistic lessons, with one day of fasting a year and a big blowout guaranteed when you turn 13.

The Ghetto Shul is constructively counter-cultural. It’s a place of warm hugs, not awkward handshakes. It’s a place of ecstatic prayer, not polite posturing. It’s a place of substantive spirituality, not superficial guilt-mongering. It’s a place where students feel welcome and at home, but they also feel Jewishly stretched and fulfilled.

Unfortunately, the Ghetto Shul is also a place at risk of closing. If more individuals and more institutions don’t support this amazing institution, it won’t survive, certainly not in the long term. This isn’t a matter of figuring out how to raise money for a year or two. The question here is how does the broader Jewish community ensure that this positive Jewish space grows, that it inspires legions of imitators, and that it helps guarantee Jewish survival in the 21st century.

In the real world, one of the first steps in that process is securing regular funding. A place such as the Ghetto Shul should be flooded with honorary memberships. Alumni, parents, Montrealers, Jews from the rest of Canada and others should step up to pay the $360 annual fee to join the Ghetto Shul. And they should commit to doing so for the next 10 years. This way, Rabbi Leibish, Dina and their devoted student leaders can focus on nurturing their community rather than raising money to stay afloat.

If a small number of people, say 300 or 400, undertook to make this relatively small investment, the payoff would be enormous. These people and others would be contributing to a successful Jewish community that serves hundreds of students and Montreal-area 20-somethings every year, while pioneering institutions rooted in our past, fulfilling us in the present and guaranteeing us a meaningful future.

Gil Troy: Student unions should stick to student issues

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 2-26-09

Earlier this month, McGill University students voted 436 to 263 to postpone indefinitely a Students’ Society resolution condemning the “bombings” of “educational institutions in Gaza.”

The initiative paralleled similar resolutions that passed at other Canadian universities, including the University of Toronto and York. But a clear majority of McGill students proclaimed that they didn’t want their student union developing a foreign policy. As pro-Palestinian forces try to import yet another round of the Middle East conflict to campus, the McGill majority endorsed the vision of a student society devoted to students’ needs and enhancing campus society, not pontificating about political conflicts far away.

True, it’s the academic’s conceit to comment about everything. We enjoy passing judgment from our cushy ivory towers, inviting our students to join our know-it-all chorus. Few students need such encouragement, compelled as they are by their own youthful vanity to judge the world that their elders have bequeathed them.

Student political organizations convey that spirit, legitimately. Campuses should be filled with many social, political and religious organizations, reflecting diverse attitudes, ideologies and political persuasions. I’m proud of my students who campaigned for now-U.S. President Barack Obama, and my student – note the singular – who supported Senator John McCain. I love seeing young Liberals and Conservatives electioneering, and I applaud the passion of those from beyond the conventional political spectrum, too.

Nevertheless, students’ partisan identities shouldn’t intrude on student union politics. The inspiration that so many students drew from Obama was commendable, but it would have been appalling if a student union had circulated a motion praising Obama and condemning McCain. This breach of political etiquette would have turned the student union into partisan Democratic headquarters, making it the student disunion.

Following a similar rationale, the anti-Israel resolutions are divisive and distracting, as well as disproportionate and discriminatory. They sabotage the modern university’s commitment to diversity. All great universities today welcome students of different religions, nationalities, races and creeds. Pronouncing on such a hot-button issue, implying that students share some consensus position, imposes thought control and presumptions of uniformity where none exist. This posture of unity will foster disunity, importing passionate divisions into an arena where they don’t belong.

Such incendiary, irrelevant resolutions distract from what should be a student society’s mission: improving students’ experiences.

Five years ago, engineering and commerce students at Concordia University rebelled against their student union’s political obsessions. Students were embarrassed that all too often, job recruiters related to Concordia as a place characterized by radical, sometimes violent, pro-Palestinian stands rather than as a centre of academic excellence. The students elected new leaders committed to helping students, not developing a foreign policy.

Finally, the resolutions themselves give a slanted view of a complex conflict. They ignore the role of Hamas, a terrorist group with an anti-Semitic, genocidal charter that advocates Israel’s destruction, in triggering the recent violence, cowering behind educational institutions, mosques and hospitals, and targeting Israeli schools.

Where were these concerned students when 10,000 Palestinian rockets bombarded Israel? Where were student unions when these rockets fell on Sapir College in the Negev or on nurseries, kindergartens, elementary schools and high schools in Sderot and its environs? Where is the outrage that smuggled Grad missiles menaced Ben-Gurion University, or that Soroka Hospital in Be’er Sheva – which serves Jews, Christians, Muslims, Druze and Bedouin equally – is targeted? Does anybody care that Soroka had to place sandbags on its sleep lab and evacuate its maternity ward under fire?

More profoundly, has anyone condemned Hamas for threatening chances of a two-state solution by using the Gaza pullout to launch rockets and dig tunnels rather than building a functioning civil society? The umbrage at Israel’s actions seems false and disproportionate, thus discriminatory, singling out the Jewish state for special scrutiny and particular enmity.

Campuses are fragile ecosystems, special places where many different people congregate to live together and learn together. Campus leaders have a special responsibility to avoid polluting the atmosphere with poisonous rhetoric, biased behaviour and irrelevant assaults on fellow students’ sensibilities. Indulging in foreign policy postures regarding explosive issues, particularly the Middle East, fails that test – raising tensions rather than alleviating them, doing nothing to solve the conflict and importing tensions from 10,000 kilometres away too close to home.

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.