Orthodox Groups to Lead Israel's New Bid to 'Strengthen Jewish Identity' of Diaspora Youth

Project to 'strengthen Jewish identity and connection with Israel' among students worldwide to get 250 million shekels – two thirds of which to be given to Chabad and Olami.

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Princeton University campus in New Jersey. Students are voting this week on divestment referendum.
Princeton University campus in New Jersey. Students are voting this week on divestment referendum.Credit: Bloomberg

The Diaspora Affairs Ministry has announced a comprehensive project to “strengthen Jewish identity and the connection with Israel” among university students around the world.

The budget for the project is 250 million shekels ($65.6 million) over two years, with a third of that sum coming from the government and the rest from Jewish groups and philanthropists. The budget will be divided equally between three organizations that work with Jewish students: Chabad, Olami and Hillel, the first two being Orthodox groups.

Sources working in the American Jewish community were critical of the relative weight given to the Orthodox organizations.

The ministry, headed by Naftali Bennett, said the activities would not be focused on issues of religion and Jewish law. “The activities on campuses throughout the world are the real answer to the growing anti-Semitism and the delegitimization of Israel on campuses,” Bennett said. “For the first time since the founding of the state, the State of Israel understands that it’s not just the state of Israeli citizens, but the state of all Jews throughout the world.”

The program, to be launched this fall at hundreds of universities, is being managed by an outside firm called the Initiative for the Future of the Jewish People, which picked the three organizations.

Chabad’s worldwide outreach work is well known. Olami is a roof organization for a network of groups that work to strengthen Jewish identity. In the United States, Olami works with Aish HaTorah, a wide-ranging outreach organization rooted in the Jerusalem yeshiva of the same name. According to Olami’s website, in 2015 some 40,000 students participated in its activities, which include Shabbat programs, Judaism classes and student trips to Poland and Israel.

“The trip to Poland was the most shocking and amazing experience I ever had in my life,” says one American student, according to the website. The trip, she said, made the group appreciate their Judaism even as they learned about the horrors that had taken place during the Holocaust.

The website also quotes Diaspora Affairs Ministry director-general Dror Kahana describing Olami’s trips to Israel as fostering a full, long-term connection with Israel.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Reform Movement in North America, said he was aware of the new plan, but added, “This funding only addresses 20 percent of Jewish students and their needs since most students are not engaged with any of these organizations. It is a beginning, but we believe that much more needs to be done to reach out to a broad range of Jewish students, especially in a time of great complexity.”

Other U.S. Jewish sources were less enthusiastic. An official at one American Jewish organization said Israel was poised to give tens of millions of shekels to groups that represent only a small portion of American Jewry, and that are not prepared to work with the other streams. This lack of proportion, he added, gives the impression that the Diaspora Affairs Ministry is trying to export the communal distortions that exist in Israel to communities abroad. He called this a worrisome and dangerous trend.

Another source said the government’s decision to give preference to Orthodox organizations raises questions about how well it understands the complexity of Diaspora Jewish life.

The Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, was very surprised by the new Diaspora Ministry plan, which it was unaware of until hearing about it from the media. A Foreign Ministry official said that no one in the Diaspora Affairs Ministry had discussed the plan or its content with the Foreign Ministry, nor did anyone consult with the ministry’s Diaspora division regarding which organizations would be receiving funds and for what types of activities.

Foreign Ministry officials added that the whole thing was strange because the consulates in North America are intensively involved with the activities of Jewish organizations on campus, and are in regular contact with these three groups, as are the Israeli embassies in most of the world’s countries.

The Foreign Ministry officials added that from their close ties with the Hillel organization, they didn’t think Hillel needed such large sums of money, nor was it clear why it was decided to give money to Chabad or Olami, the latter of which these sources, who deal with the Diaspora, had never heard of.

“We’re talking about money that’s three times the Foreign Ministry’s information budget,” said a Foreign Ministry official. “This outlay was not in any way coordinated with us and we don’t understand this plan and the conceptual framework behind this financial outlay.”

Nachman Shai (Zionist Union), head of the Caucus to strengthen the Jewish people, responded to the planned project with disdain.

"Without public debate, without transparency, hidden and in secret, the Israeli government would throw tens of millions from the state budget for the dubious and controversial project of fostering Jewish identity in the Diaspora," said Shai. "Bibi's handing out sweets, this time to Bennett. And who wasn't invited to this celebration? Of course, the Foreign Ministry, the unwanted guest in al international matters."

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