Young Jews need to start up a love affair with Israel

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I stood gazing at the audience in front of me, excited to become a bar mitzvah. I was about to give the sermon I had been working on for months.

It actually was a really good speech, riddled with pithy dialogue and a dynamite introduction and conclusion. My topic was one to make anyone smile: Israel. All Jews love Israel.

Elan Merry

The speech and the service concluded smoothly, and soon relatives and friends surrounded me, congratulating me on an excellent speech. However, as I began to discuss my lecture with some synagogue members, I became confused.

Many people I talked to had a lack of passion for Israel, and they also didn’t seem to place much importance on the Jewish state — which left me mystified.

It began to dawn on me that most American Jews have not made a legitimate connection with the country so important to all of us. What many define as having “a passion for Israel” is donating a few bucks to have a tree planted there.

Many American Jews have lost what Israel really means and why it needs to play such a major part in every Jew’s life. To reverse this trend, it is essential for young American Jews to start connecting with Israel and seeing it for more than just that place we turn to when praying.

Israel is a refuge for Jews of any background. Our Jewish history is full of stories of persecution, and since its creation in 1948, Israel offers a refuge, always with open arms.

In just the past 25 years, Jews from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia have sought refuge in their historical homeland. Now, with a strong and independent Israel, Jews from all over the world are assured a safe haven in case of anti-Semitism and persecution.

In 1939, just before the start of World War II, the United States turned away the M.S. St. Louis, packed with Jewish refugees from Germany. With no Jewish homeland to go to, the ship ended up returning to Europe, where many of the passengers were forced to disembark in countries that soon fell under Nazi persecution.

In 1948, during the War of Independence in Israel, many American Jews left their homes to bear arms and stand with their Israeli brothers. This American Zionist zeal is mostly gone.

I am extremely lucky to have a large family in Israel, and I have been to the country countless times. When I travel to Israel, the culture, music and streets of Tel Aviv make me feel more Jewish than any Sh’ma ever has. This amazing effect Israel has can really be a vitalizing effort in reinvigorating the U.S. Jewish relationship and identity with Israel.

The truth is that most American Jews do not have any Israeli relatives and would much rather vacation in Hawaii than a patch of desert.

American Jewry has become mainly prayer-based and synagogue community–based, or at least that’s the way many youth see it. Jewish youth believe that if they become a b’nai mitzvah or get confirmed or go to synagogue every once in a while

with some Jewish friends, they have fulfilled the criteria for being an ideal Jew.

But Judaism is the culture, the identity, the history — and 90 percent of it involves a dedicated relationship with Israel.

While liberalism coincides with what young Jews believe, unfortunately a liberal mindset is commonly very anti-Israel. A close Jewish friend of mine constantly argues how the aggressive bully Israel must be stopped. He listens to NPR, watches the BBC, and is influenced by the constant anti-Israel rancor. Yet he has never been to Israel to see the country’s situation for himself.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am a strong Democrat, but I keep Israel in priority. Many American Jews have forgotten this.

How do we show American Jews that the connection with Israel means as much about being Jewish as does the siddur in their hands? The only solution is to travel to Israel.

American Jewish travel to Israel has fallen by 60 percent in the last 12 years. This alarming statistic should scare every person who sees it. Israel has become an afterthought in the American Jewish household.

As part of the Write On for Israel program, I recently went on a trip to Israel with 17 other Jewish teens. As I saw many of my peers experience Israel for the first time, it was obvious that during those precious 10 days they felt more Jewish than ever before.

Programs that offer trips to Israel for teens are creating a desperately needed generation of pro-Israel advocates for the future.

As current Jewish teens in the United States grow into their 20s and beyond, what have we taught them?

That it’s OK to marry a Catholic as long as you name your kid David and take him to Yom Kippur services once a year? That you do not need to speak a word of Hebrew or even know what you are chanting in synagogue? That Israel is a dangerous place? That you can fulfill a mitzvah by sending Israel a few bucks each year?

Our history and, most importantly, our connection with Israel is what makes us Jewish, and this is in real jeopardy. American Jews need to hop on an El Al flight (the kosher food isn’t that bad) and see for themselves.

Elan Merry recently spent 10 days in Israel as a participant in Write On for Israel, an intensive two-year program that teaches high school students about journalism and Israel. He is 15 and lives in Mountain View.