"Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem" by Francesco Hayez, 1867
"Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem" by Francesco Hayez, 1867

Here’s what we need to tell young people about Israel

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The Jewish community is still digesting new demographic findings from the “Portrait of Bay Area Jewish Life” recently released by the S.F.-based Federation. It seems that only a small percentage of the Jewish population surveyed has a strong attachment to Israel. Among young people, there is ambivalence at best and, in many cases, a clearly negative view.

In much of the conversation surrounding Israel, the main point that is argued to justify the existence of the Jewish state is that we need a haven. What is amazingly absent in many discussions is the religious connection to the land of Israel and the reason that Jews longed for millennia to return to a tiny dot on the map of the Middle East.

Something seems to be missing in the way that we discuss Israel within our community. Whenever the term “rights” is used, it is mostly in the context of the Palestinians. They certainly deserve rights, but we also need to remind ourselves that the land of Israel was given to the Jewish people and that it was never abandoned. Aside from having a continuous Jewish presence within the land, even after the exile in 70 CE, the Jewish community in the diaspora also was committed to returning. It is embedded in our liturgy, in our Passover haggadah and even under our chuppahs at our greatest time of joy.

Without suggesting that we do not need Israel as a haven, it is important to realize that for many Jewish people, anti-Semitism is only academic. Despite the hysteria that is generated when neo-Nazis rally, or Louis Farrakhan delivers a sermon, Jews are detached from a real feeling of vulnerability that underscored the imperative of Zionism in previous generations. It just has not hit home in America the way that it has in France. Trying to get young Jews to rally around Israel as a solution for a problem that they do not identify with is just not working. There needs to be a more proactive approach and a more positive approach. Israel has to be seen as something that is part of their heritage and part of their legacy.

Jews are detached from a real feeling of vulnerability that underscored the imperative of Zionism in previous generations.

Our community has to start talking about the intrinsic value that Israel has within Judaism. There is a spiritual reality that has to be shared. There is tremendous history to be explored. Instead of spending most of our Birthright itineraries on just showing young people a good time, let’s show them that we can open a Jewish Bible to almost any page and connect to somewhere in Israel. They should understand that there are commandments that only can be performed in Israel and see a visit to their homeland as an opportunity to connect spiritually.

For millennia, Jews risked their lives to make their away across the globe just to set their foot down on sacred soil. We need to figure ways to give the next generation an appreciation for what that means and why. When we relegated the Grace After Meals to just the first paragraph at summer camps, we omitted the very next paragraph, which is completely dedicated to our special relationship with the land of Israel.

We have to figure out a way to bring that back and let Jews know that Israel is actually for all of us. The Kotel should not be politicized in order to prove the legitimacy of multiple denominations. It should be used to explain what life was like when we had a centralized focal point for spiritual practice.

Our community has a real challenge ahead of itself. We have to meet that challenge by reassessing the education that we are providing our young people. Israel has to be explained to them in the context of 3,700 years of Jewish history, and they have to understand that they are the bearers of an incredible legacy with so much to be proud of today. If we can do that, then we will see a greater attachment to the modern State of Israel, and a great level of engagement in our local community as well.

70 years of Israeli statehood! Israel Independence Day kicks off the evening of April 18. To mark the occasion, J. asked dozens of Bay Area Jews to reflect on seven decades of the Jewish state. New ones will be posted daily here.

Rabbi Joey Felsen
Rabbi Joey Felsen

Rabbi Joey Felsen is the founder and executive director of the Palo Alto-based Jewish Study Network. He teaches at JCCs in Palo Alto and Los Gatos, and is the founding board president of Meira Academy in Palo Alto. Rabbi Felsen is also on the board of J. The Jewish News of Northern California.