American and Israeli Jews must break cultural barriers

JERUSALEM — "I am an Israeli who happens to be Jewish…but it's totally different than your experience of being Jewish."

These words, uttered by an unidentified Israeli young adult who freely admitted he considers himself an Israeli first and a Jew second, helped set the tone for this year's General Assembly sponsored by the UJA Federations of North America.

And much of the tone had to do with Jewish identity — or the lack thereof — among both American and Israeli Jews.

This G.A. was the first ever in Israel. The annual event, otherwise held in different North American cities, generally deals with fund-raising ideas and issues facing North American Jewry.

But a conference in Israel called for an entirely different agenda. Part of that agenda became evident early on in a "trigger film" shown to delegates to make them think and talk about the cultural and religious differences between Israelis and North American Jews.

In that movie, unidentified North American young people visiting Israel were seen discussing their different concepts of Judaism with their Israeli peers. The differences were striking and in many ways very disturbing.

One North American youth said, "I thought I would come to Israel and feel everybody's Jewish and I'm part of it…[but] I'm not part of you guys because you guys are Israeli first."

What then do the future generations of Americans and Israelis have in common?

If you believe the naysayers, young people on both shores have an identity crisis. American youth are assimilating and intermarrying; they are lost to the Jewish people. Israeli youth are abandoning synagogues just as quickly and looking to move to the West, where better paying jobs in a less stressful environment await them.

But spend a week talking to Israelis about this scenario and you'll find out that we Americans are using different definitions when we speak of an identity crisis.

Adeerah, as one Israeli example, doesn't go to synagogue much. But she lights Shabbat candles and has a Shabbat dinner with her family every Friday night.

Itamar proudly states he has never stepped into a synagogue in all of his 49 years. But he asserts that in Israeli public school he learned more Jewish history and studied more Torah than most of his American peers did in Sunday school. And he passed up a job offer in Chicago that would have made him very affluent because "here is where I live and breathe the history of the Jewish people."

Luba emigrated from Russia to Israel as a teen in 1975. She doesn't go to synagogue much and she doesn't consider herself religious. But when the holidays come, she is sitting with the other women behind a mechitza in an Orthodox synagogue "where I feel like I belong."

Oren is studying mass communications at a Philadelphia university and plans on coming home to Israel after he gets his doctorate.

So what kind of dialogue can Israeli and North American Jews have about Jewish identify when we are using such different definitions?

And how can North American Jews and Israeli Jews talk about this and other subjects when they really don't know or don't understand each other?

In one session of the G.A. we were reminded that only 20

percent of American Jews have ever visited Israel. Even among the 3,000 plus North American delegates to the G.A. — all of whom are community leaders and fund-raisers back home — there were many first-time visitors.

Undoubtedly, organizers of this G.A. saw their first-ever meeting in Israel as a chance to encourage a more productive meeting of the minds between Israeli and North Americans. However, Israelis, for the most part, gave short shrift to the G.A.

While the conference got heavy coverage in the Jerusalem Post and the English edition of the daily Ha'aretz, the Hebrew press mostly ignored it. A visit by North American Jewish leaders obviously wasn't that important. And what do we expect when so few North Americans ever visit Israel?

So it takes a lot of chutzpah on our part to come to Israel and tell people here that they have an identify crisis. They are living in the Jewish homeland, marrying other Jews, raising Jewish families.

We, on the other hand, are assimilating at an alarming rate. Many of us don't even know or care when Simchat Torah comes around every year. But even the most secular Israeli Jew knows when this and every other Jewish holiday takes place. What's more, they know what each holiday signifies. Try asking most American Jews about the meaning of the holidays.

Its like the old joke. When non-religious Israeli youth visit America they watch in amazement as American Jewish youth recite the birchat hamazon after meals. The Americans don't know what the words mean; the Israelis understand the Hebrew but don't know why the Americans bother saying the prayer.

American Jewish leaders are depressed by the growing detachment between U.S. Jews and Israelis. They hope that a new effort called the Birthright project will send more young North American youths on an Israeli visit after their b'nai mitzvah. But as our experience in the Bay Area shows, teens will go only if their friends are going and if they have some attachment to Israel and some understanding of what it means to be a Jew.

It is imperative that we find a way to improve the dialogue between North American Jews and Israelis. If we don't, our next generation will feel even more disconnected to the Jewish state.

One Israeli in the "trigger film" put it this way: "The saddest part is that we need each other…We should try and think of how we can help each other and create something new."