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Lack of Membership's at the Heart of Alienation

October 4, 2007 By:
Rabbi Alan Silverstein
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In a new study, "Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation From Israel," Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman document a "growing distancing from Israel of [non-Orthodox] American Jews that seems to be most pronounced among" the young.

Alarmingly, the authors report that among 1,800 interviewees under the age of 35, only 48 percent agreed that "Israel's destruction would be a personal tragedy," and only 54 percent are "comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state." Cohen and Kelman, strong advocates of Jewish peoplehood, are fearful that "these feelings of attachment may well be changing, as warmth gives way to indifference, and indifference may even give way to downright alienation."

A key to deciphering these troublesome findings is the omission of Orthodox young adults, bypassing up to one-sixth of this sector of American Jewry.

Why were they removed? Based upon other studies, the researchers assumed that "Orthodox engagement with Israel has increased over the years ... ." This is true because young Orthodox men and women are part of a religious movement and culture that affirm ties to Jews around the world.

For that reason, a strong connection to fellow Jews is evident among young people within other movements as well.

In 2003, the Ratner Center of the Jewish Theological Seminary published the results of interviews with 1,000 college graduates from households affiliated with Conservative synagogues. Of these, 89 percent asserted that "I feel connected to the Jewish people"; 61 percent expressed that "I have a responsibility to help Jews around the world," and 98 percent affirmed that "I am proud to be a Jew."

In terms of the Jewish state, 60 percent of these 22-year-olds have spent time there; 15 percent have studied Hebrew for college credit, and 16 percent say they could "see themselves living permanently in Israel."

Despite the anti-Israel climate on campuses in 2002-03 during the second intifada, more than 90 percent of respondents indicated that Israel is either "important" or "very important" to them. The Ratner report noted that "far from winning them over or causing them to defect [from supporting Israel], the anti-Zionist vitriol that they face on many campuses has resulted in a substantial rise in this cohort's sympathy toward Israel."

The authors of that study concluded that "[these Conservative Jewish young adults] score high on Jewish peoplehood. ... National feeling and pride in their heritage dominate the list of virtues that the students consider highly important: remembering the Holocaust ..., caring about Israel, countering anti-Semitism, feeling a connection to other Jews."

These encouraging results were exceeded during follow-up interviews with the subset who were alumni of Conservative Judaism's Ramah camps. More than 90 percent of these former counselors and campers affirmed that Israel is "very important" to them; 63 percent had taken Jewish studies courses (often including Hebrew language); 64 percent of counselors and 47 percent of campers had signed pro-Israel petitions; and 57 percent (counselors) and 30 percent (campers) had attended pro-Israel rallies.

The study concluded that "this high and almost universal expression of strong attachment to the Jewish homeland goes hand in hand with the Zionist approach of Ramah. The curriculum at Ramah camps -- with celebrations of Israel's achievements, learning about Israel's georaphy and its people, learning and speaking some Hebrew, singing Israeli songs, and getting to know many counselors from Israel -- enhances the ties of its campers and counselors."

"Beyond Distancing" issues an urgent warning to American Jewry -- that we cannot allow the growing alienation of sectors of our younger generation from the Jewish state.

A remedy is suggested by studies surveying affiliated Orthodox and Conservative young Jews, and would likely be evident as well in future research among other Israel-oriented synagogue movements. Assimilation and the concomitant erosion of a sense of Jewish peoplehood take place most frequently among families not engaged with congregations.

Synagogues provide a place not only to pray and study Torah, but also to connect members with fellow Jews through sermons, lectures, classes, discussions, programs, social events, mailings, Internet postings, trips, and other programs and activities.

Synagogue members also dwell within a culture that creates Jewishly identified homes; they're most likely to send sons and daughters into programs that courage connection to other Jews: camps, youth groups, schools, Israel experiences, Hillels and Jewish community centers. Long-term synagogue affiliation offers the best formula for sustaining close ties with Israel.

Rabbi Alan Silverstein is an author and the rabbi of Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell, N.J. This article originally appeared in The New Jersey Jewish News.

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