WASHINGTON - On the stage in the plenum of The Jewish Federations of North America's annual conference sat three well-tailored and smiling young people, who had immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia, Brazil and Peru. They told their story to the audience of 3,000. One described how far she had come since childhood, when she was excited by the elevator in the absorption center, and the other two focused on their military service and their love for Israel. A significant percentage of their achievements, as expected at an event of this type, were attributed to American Jewry and its support for Israel.
Also as expected, the audience at the General Assembly was moved - but somewhat less so than in the past. The long relationship between Israel and American Jewry has moved on to a new phase. They're not equals yet, but Israel is no longer the unfortunate relative. The enthusiasm is waning, and the news from Israel is eroding what idealism remains.
Participants at the GA sang the anthems of the United States, Canada and Israel, and the White House chief of staff spoke about his personal connection to Israel and the U.S. president's commitment to its security. But Israel is not a top priority, and that is evident in the decline in donations to Israel collected by the federations: less that a third of the approximately $900 million donated in 2008.
One of the serious problems was and remains assimilation (for those who consider it a problem). Because of cutbacks, there were fewer young people at the GA this year. Some said that in spite of the claims that young people are cutting themselves off from community institutions, they actually feel more involved than their parents, in that they aren't just signing checks. In addition, the argument goes, less formal organizations like havurot require greater personal responsibility and investment than more traditional ones.
The Taglit-Birthright Israel project, which offers young Jews a free 10-day visit to Israel, has been a success, and has sent about 220,000 young people to Israel since its establishment a decade ago.
Visits to Masada, encounters with other Jews, and meetings with Israel Defense Forces soldiers and college students create a sense of fun for the young people, and it pays off in the long run. Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky called for all young Diaspora Jews to be brought on trips to Israel.
But beyond preventing assimilation and fostering connections with young people, Israel and American Jewry lack a common agenda. Not surprisingly, the two most recent outpourings of solidarity came during the second intifada and the Second Lebanon War. The American Jewish community lacks reasons for enthusiasm. Although Sharansky the hero still receives a standing ovation, there are no longer mass demonstrations to free Soviet Jewry, and American Jews have come to terms with the "desertion" of hundreds of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union to the United States; they are working energetically to integrate "the Russians" into existing institutions so that at least they won't assimilate. Some community activists feel betrayed by the "new yordim" - the growing community of Ethiopian Jews who have wandered from Israel to New York. "We paid to bring you to Israel, and you fled here?" they accuse them.
There were a great many topics on the agenda, from the Iranian threat to Facebook fund-raising to environmental initiatives. What is missing is a unifying and exciting agenda. If Israel wants to continue to be relevant to these young people - and not only because of its problems, the common fears and the free trip - it must do its part to contribute to an egalitarian relationship.
It isn't pleasant to hear a young American Jewish activist, to whom Israel is important, claiming that the country is not interested in him. A Sarah Silverman comedy special on Israel's Channel 2 may be a hit, but it's not enough. Teaching the history and culture of Diaspora Jewry in Israeli schools would be a good start.
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