Changing Relations (part 1): American Jews Are Now Looking for 2-way Relationship with Israel

American, Jews, long accustomed to helping their embattled and impoverished Israeli cousins, are trying to adjust as the relationship between Israel and American Jewry enters a new era.

It is an era in which: – The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit sponsors a “reverse mission,” bringing nine Israelis to visit Detroit and its Jewish communal institutions. – The United Jewish Appeal asks the Israeli government for a $10 million grant to send American Jewish children to Israel. – American Jewish leaders talk of the need to canvass the Israeli public for contributions.

In effect, the American Jewish community is now saying, “Ask not only what you can do for you.”

This “new partnership” reflects the dramatic changes in both Israel and the American Jewish community that have taken place since 1948, and even 1967.

Israel is at last facing the prospect of peace. And it has already overcome the economic hurdles of the 1980s, becoming one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

As a result, American Jewish alms now make up only a minuscule portion of the Israeli economy. Once comprising more than 25 percent of the Israeli budget, United Jewish Appeals funds today come to less than 1 percent — or roughly the amount of a tax cut proposed by the Finance Ministry last October.

At the same time, American Jews are seeing their own plight as much more precarious. The threats of assimilation and intermarriage seem to bear out the dire predictions of Zionist ideology — and are moving questions of local Jewish education and observance to the top of the agenda.

The need to redefine the Israel-Diaspora relationship is at least in part the natural reflection of the rise of a new generation. A European-born, Yiddish- accented leadership is being replaced by native-born American and Israelis who came of age after the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel.

As the ground underneath the Israel-Diaspora relationship shifts, discussion of the future of that relationship has become increasingly prominent within the community.

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin has sparked controversy and discussion with his high-profile criticism of the old-style relationship and his suggestions of how to organize the new.

The future of the relationship is also coming to play a role in discussions under way about reorganizing the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal and the other central institutions of American Jewish philanthropy.

Samuel Norich, former executive director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, highlighted this implication of the restructuring talks in a booklet titled “What Will Bind Us Now: A Report on the Institutional Ties Between Israel and American Jewry.”

A meeting convened in March by the Wilstein Institute of Jewish Policy Studies, a bicoastal Jewish think tank, brought together a couple dozen Jewish thinkers and communal leaders to discuss the pamphlet, and the future of Israel-Diaspora relations in general.

Once one removes Israel-centered political activity and Israel-centered philanthropy from the agenda, “what’s revealed is that we haven’t paid attention what a genuine relationship between Israel and the Diaspora might be,” said David Gordis, director of the institute.

The recent UJA Midwest Young Leadership Conference in Kansas City provided an illustration of the uncertainty generated by the new era.

Judaism was high on the agenda of the March conference, which attracted 475 people Featured sessions dealt with raising Jewish children, celebrating the Sabbath and answering the question of “Why be Jewish?” Organizers boasted that at least two thirds of the participants attended Saturday morning services.

But at least one visiting Israeli was aghast that the traditional overseas focus of the United Jewish appeal — helping immigrant absorption and development in Israel, and rescuing Jews around the world — seemed peripheral to the program.

“This is the United Jewish Appeal that’s supposed to raise money for Jewish needs?” one incredulous philanthropic official in New York said, after relating the Israeli’s account of the weekend.

To this official, the schedule symbolized how Israel, once the center of American Jewish communal life, had moved into a distant corner.

But for the organizers of the weekend, the message was very different. As Debra Pell, women’s chair of the UJA Young Leadership Cabinet, see it, the religious component and the Israel component “really link up together.

“One of the things that’s so necessary in this generation is that we tell the story of the Jewish people, and we can’t tell the story of the Jewish people without Israel,” she said.

“It’s not a matter of either-or. It’s a matter of needing both, both a meaningful Jewish life in America and with it a very strong Israel component,” she said.

The Israeli’s fears that increasing focus on Jewish identity will come at the expense of Israel are not entirely baseless. Some advocates of promoting Jewish identity in America say, privately, that after decades of focusing the community’s attention overseas, some isolationism may be just what the American Jewish soul needs.

But Israel continues to have a strong pull, particularly on the community’s institutions and the individuals most committed to Jewish life.

It is no secret that many American Jews see Israel as a resource for defining and reinforcing that identity.

“Israel is the most exciting place for any Jewish young person,” said Pell. It is “the place for self-discovery of one’s Jewish identity. The place that the Jewish people, more than any other place, are acting out their destiny.”

For this reason, projects such as the Israel Experience, which sends American Jewish youth to visit Israel, are seen by many as a cornerstone of the American Jewish identity agenda, even as they promise the creation of stronger Israel- Diaspora ties.

Beyond visiting Israel, questions of Jewish identity provide a place for a shared Israeli-Diaspora struggle.

The question of maintaining a strong Jewish identity in the modern world in shared both by “American Jews, with their concern over assimilation and continuity, and Israeli Jews, who are asking their own questions of Jewish identity,” said Jonathan Woocher.

Woocher is executive vice president of the Jewish Educational Services of North America and author of “Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews,” which explores the central role of the UJA and the fund-raising efforts on behalf of Israel in the American Jewish community psyche.

Questions about the future of Israeli Jewish identity have been voiced at the highest levels. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, in remarks to American Jews, frequently warns of the dangers that the influx of American cable television poses to Israeli culture.

Avram Infeld, director of the Jerusalem-based Melitz Center for Zionist education, illustrate the twin identity problems with the following example, said Pell:

American Jewish children “sing Birkat Hamazon, the Grace After Meals, but don’t understand it. The Israelis are the only ones who understand it, but they don’t sing it,” she said.

“I think there are lots of lessons American Jews can share with Israelis,” said Pell. Among them are American-style religious pluralism, feminism and a culture of philanthropy.

Steven M. Cohen, co-author of “Two Worlds of Judaism: The Israeli and American Experiences,” agrees.

“We need to engage American Jews in the internal struggle Israel is facing over the nature of Judaism, the place of Judaism in Israel, civil liberties, civil rights, attempts to create a voluntary philanthropic sector in Israel,” he said.

“We need American Jews working with Israelis to create a better Israeli society in ways that American Jews can contribute their expertise and insights.”

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