The headline news coming out of the ‘007 National Survey of American Jews — namely, that fewer than half of Jews under the age of 35 believe Israel’s destruction would be a personal tragedy — was shocking, but, sadly, not surprising to those of us in the Jewish communal field. Yet some of the responses from leaders of the Jewish community were also shocking, in that they called for merely strengthening existing programs such as Birthright Israel and similar initiatives. While Birthright has had a significant initial positive impact and should indeed be expanded, we also need to engage multiple approaches that will facilitate interest in and support for Israel and Jewish continuity. I was acutely disappointed that there were not more voices advocating a much more serious investment in community-based programming, as a way of connecting and inspiring children from a young age, through their families and communities, to internalize and strengthen their personal connection to Israel and its people.
Our communal framework in northern New Jersey can and should be a model for how an embracing and innovative community can make real inroads in reaching the less affiliated and less committed. We have enormous educational, cultural, and religious resources. We have substantial financial resources. We have a large population of former Israelis, who can help make Israel real and accessible to other community members. We have all of the raw material to build an active, committed, involved Jewish community that understands the importance and centrality of Israel in modern Jewish life, and can work to strengthen the bonds between American Jewry and the Israeli people.
The Jewish community center, as a community institution, has an integral role to play in fashioning powerful programming that provides the catalyst for our identification with Israel. It has the potential to play a much more central role as the fulcrum linking American Jewry and the Israeli people, by effectively facilitating closer connections with Israel and by working in close collaboration with other community agencies. JCCs are the safe haven where all those who identify as Jews can feel welcome and involved. JCCs are an authentic gateway to a unified and engaged Jewish community. And truly, this is where it should all begin — in the family and community, well before young adults leave home and seek to build lives elsewhere.
Unquestionably, children who participate with their parents in ongoing Israel programming that brings together an entire community will be much more likely to consider Israel’s existence a critical factor in their Jewish and personal identity. Children who travel to Israel with their parents as part of a JCC communal tour, thoughtfully structured for families by connecting them with people who have similar interests, are much more likely to sustain a communal connection as part of their ongoing bond with both the Israeli landscape and the Israeli people. Children who spend their summers hosting, traveling with, and learning from young Israeli peers are much more likely to internalize a deep-seated empathy for Israelis that will form the basis for all of their future interaction with Jewish community. And children who are encouraged to engage in life-long learning about Israel and their Jewish heritage, and who are provided exciting opportunities to do so, will be much more inclined to hold fast to these basic communal loyalties as they mature and raise families of their own.
At the Bergen YJCC, we have made a conscious effort to follow this four-part plan. And we are seeing real results.
Much of our programming over the course of the year — in our large and active nursery school, in our teen programming, and in our adult education — emphasizes Israel education. Unlike some JCCs, we took the initiative to institute an annual family tour to Israel, a program now in its 16th year that has brought hundreds of our families to Israel. And it was on one of those family tours, in ‘000, that our lay leadership, while visiting victims of terror, had the innovative idea of bringing young teenage terror victims for a joint summer travel program with our teens, both as an act of chesed to provide them with respite and diversion, and as a way of offering our teens a real "hands-on" opportunity to create friendships with Israeli peers. This program, Project Open Hearts Open Homes, has had a transformative impact on the YJCC community, spinning off a variety of sister programs that keep our teens linked with young Israeli peers. Lastly, we seek every opportunity to integrate all of these programs together in a multi-disciplinary way, offering opportunities for ongoing communication between our community and Israeli sister communities, hosting visitors and distinguished lecturers, and providing the physical space and the programming know-how to keep all of these connections as real and as vital as possible, particularly for our young people.
No one strategy or program provides the panacea for what is troubling our community. We face enormous challenges going forward. But we must continue to innovate, to take risks, to try out new ideas and directions that can inspire and motivate. We have to begin by reaching children at a young age, and we must encourage their families to be part of this effort. We have to find ways to convince individual members of our communities that it is through their ongoing support of vital Jewish communal institutions that these bonds and bridges can be built. And by doing so, we will ensure that our next generation will include outstanding leaders who identify strongly with Israel and devote their personal talents and resources to building Jewish community.