Scott Shay has pointed out
that saving US Jewry requires a massive Jewish education effort in the broadest sense. He believes that Jewish education must be subsidized and that the Birthright Israel program must be expanded to reach everyone who might want to participate. This makes sense. The future of the Jewish people-and the future of Zionism - depends on the younger generation. The younger generation, especially secular Jewish youth, are increasingly uninterested in Israel and Zionism.
It is probably untrue, though widely asserted, that Jewish youth are turning away from Israel because of specific Israeli policies or objections to the AIPAC lobby. It is more a measure of apathy. Young Jewish people who had gotten a free trip to Israel in the Birthright Israel program, or who had visited Israel with peers in another framework, were more likely to support Israel and to take part in pro-Israel political action
, and are apparently more interested in Judaism as well.
Secular Jewish organizations and Labor Zionist organizations should have a major role in Jewish education in the broadest sense and in providing a Jewish community framework for adults. At present, the major Jewish educational effort is made by orthodox Judaism. And indeed, the surveys showed that support for Israel was very high among young orthodox Jews. Unfortunately, the Labor Zionist movement has misdirected their efforts. In an effort to attract disaffected university students, and perhaps to compete for their attention with anti-Zionist groups, Hillel and Labor Zionist groups have been sponsoring anti-Zionist propaganda. While everyone has a right to voice their opinion, it is not certainly not the task of Zionist organizations to propagate the views of anti-Zionists. If young people are ignorant of their Jewish heritage, searching for roots, and uninterested in Israel, lectures by PLO member Yasser Abed-Rabbo and films about Azmi Bishara, the anti-Israel Arab MK who supports Hezbollah, or the Breaking the Silence anti-occupation exhibit are unlikely to make them Zionists or bring them closer to Judaism. Those young people are more likely to be brought back to Judaism by the proselytizing Chabad movement, as many secular Jewish parents have learned to their sorrow. Anti-Zionist events sponsored by Zionist groups may fill the halls, but they are leading young people in the wrong direction. The people who sponsor them have to ask themselves, "In what business are we in?"
One suspects that the lack of Zionist content in such events reflects a lack of knowledge about Israel and Zionism in some of the sponsors. Zionism and Israel are not summed up or epitomized by persecution of Arabs and the occupation, but that is all some of these people seem to know. Surely however, they could find better advocates for Zionism and Israel than Azmi Bishara and Yasser Abed Rabbo. Outreach and debate are both commendable and important functions. Representatives of the Hezbollah point of view, like Bishara, or representatives of the PLO point of view like Abed Rabbo, can be invited to debate Zionists. They cannot be offered as speakers or resources by a Zionist organization however. Zionist groups should certainly attend Breaking the Silence appearances on campus, but they should be there to politely and firmly present a Zionist point of view and to initiate debate and discussion. Progressive Zionists who are concerned about Israeli society should remember that a steady stream of new immigrants populating kibbutzim and towns in the Negev and Galilee will do more to strengthen progressive forces in Israel and change Israeli society than will campus attacks on Israel. Alienating progressive Zionism from mainstream Zionism will weaken progressize Zionism, not the Zionist right. In the past, the Labor Zionist movement and progressive Zionism earned its right to criticize and shape Israeli society by helping to build that society and helping to build the Zionist movement -- that must be true in the future as well.
Looking back on the success of Zionism, and of secular Judaism in Europe, we can understand that a major factor were the networks of Jewish education that were instituted at all levels and in a variety of ways. These included youth movements, the hovevei Tziyon circles in Russia, Hebrew day schools, Hebrew high schools and Zionist training farms. In pre-Holocaust Poland, secular Jewish education was provided as a cooperative effort of the Poalei Tziyon and the non-Zionist Jewish Bund. Those particular institutions may not all be relevant to twenty-first century USA, France or Britain. However, there is a demand for inexpensive high quality education, and if that demand is supplied through Jewish education, it will meet an eager market. Part of the cost should be offset by providing Israeli government subsidized teachers, part by donations, and part by income-graded tuition fees. We should not neglect the possibility of opening Jewish education to non-Jews as well. In Britain, a Jewish school is in great demand by Muslim parents
, and half its students are non-Jews, creating a contact point for dialogue and outreach.
The Birthright program should be expanded to reach everyone who wants to participate. For those who might not want to participate in Birthright, there should be attractive alternatives, such as a year of free study at an Israeli university or high school. Other creative programs can fill the needs of those who are interested in Tikkun Olam
(good works), by offering a year of learning Hebrew and helping people in beleaguered development towns like Sderot and Kiriat Shmonah, among new immigrants and Israeli Arab and Druze communities.
The revitalization of Jewish education should be a priority task for Diaspora Jews, for Israel, for the Zionist Movement, and in particular for Labor Zionism. All those who want to see a strong Israel and a strong Jewish people must join forces to rebuild Jewish education. Political action is "sexy" and dramatic. However, campus confrontations and AIPAC lobbying are not going to create more American Jews or Zionists.
The apathy of American Jewish youth today is due in large part to neglect of Jewish education since World War II, as Jews moved away from the framework of orthodoxy and Talmud Torah education. Education is slow work. It is expensive, routine and frustrating. Farmers can usually see the fruit of their labor in a year, but an educator may not see it for twenty years. The foundation of the Zionist movement was in great part made possible by Jewish, Zionist education, which had been going on for many years before the first Zionist congress. It did not spring full blown from nothing. If we begin to replant the seeds of Jewish life today, we or our children will see the fruits in ten, twenty or thirty years. Ami Isseroff
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Replies: 3 Comments
Another very thoughtful article, Ami. Just to point out that the Jewish school in demand from Muslim parents also produced Moazem Begg, captured in Afghanistan and locked up at Guantanamo. Although no charges were proven against him he is the co-founder of an Islamic fundamentnalist bookshop. So much for mutual tolerance.
lyn, Monday, March 5th
i would like to tell you about the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School for Jewish Education out of HebrewUniversity,with programs in U.S., Canada. Britian.Australia!. It has "graduated"more than 30000 People. It is exciting, rich jewish learning.see the web page
Judith Kasser, Saturday, March 3rd
I'm not sure where the shot to Chabad is coming from. Torah Judaism is tremendously stonger and more viable due to the efforts of the Lubavitcher rebbe zt'l. (NB: I'm am not Lubavitch.)
A child who becomes ba'al t'shuvah, whether through Chabad or another Orthodox stream, can pretty much assure his parents that they will have halachically Jewish grandchildren and great grandchildren. It seems to me that a Jewish parent who finds that sorrowful is a Jew with self-identity issues.
Kol tov (and Purim sameach),
Robert Honeyman, Friday, March 2nd
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