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Israel Turns 55 with Independence Day Nearing, Are U.S. Jews Connected to Israel?

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Delight shot through the classroom of eighth-graders like a pogo stick gone wild.

The 35 students at the Heschel School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side erupted Monday afternoon with giddy comments and questions about the two-week trip to Israel they were about to begin the next morning.

“I’m ecstatic,” shouted David Inkeles, 13. “It’s very rare to get to go with all your friends to the desert in Israel for two weeks.”

One boy asked if he should bring his own toilet paper.

“Israeli toilet paper scratches, so if you’re cool with that, that’s great,” the teacher answered.

Elliot Sion, 14, said, “I feel sort of like we’re messengers for the rest of the country,” bringing American Jews’ support to their brethren in Israel.

“The fact that we have our own Jewish homeland,” said Yoni Bokser, 14, “gives me a safe feeling.”

Such visceral connectedness to Israel is not so common among American Jews, a majority of whom — from 60 percent to 75 percent, according to estimates — have never visited the Jewish state.

However, American Jewish interest in Israel has soared over the last two years, as worry for the embattled state has joined with a new sense of vulnerability after Sept. 11.

American Jews’ level of attachment to Israel is as great as he has seen in his seventeen years as head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Malcolm Hoenlein, with “standing-room- only” crowds for his speaking engagements around the country.

As Israel Independence Day approaches on May 7, however, other Jewish leaders are voicing concern about the relationship between American Jews and Israel.

For one, the protracted Palestinian intifada, now in its 31st month, could have damaging effects.

The drop in American travel to Israel since the intifada began — a fall of 60 percent, almost all of which is assumed to be Jewish, according to Israel’s Tourism Ministry — has lessened American Jews’ physical connection to the land.

An emphasis on security diverts American Jews from other critical issues in Israel, observers say.

The continued violence might be emotionally overwhelming for American Jews, causing them to detach from the issue entirely.

Others say the Jewish educational system has failed to make Israel a focus.

And some say American Jews have internalized the American trend toward an individual connection to God over a communal one, chipping away at the Jewish philosophy of peoplehood — a vital component of attachment to the Jewish state.

“There’s a wide diversity of attachment to Israel” among American Jews, which is related to the number of times one has visited Israel and the strength of one’s Jewish identity, said Steven M. Cohen, a demographer of American Jewry.

“The most engaged” — about 20 percent of American Jews — “are the most attached,” Cohen said.

Another 40 percent represent “the vast Jewish middle,” who care about Israel, but are not well-informed, he said.

The remaining 40 percent are unconcerned with either Judaism or Israel, Cohen said.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Reform movement’s ARZA/World Union, said the intifada has led to a short-term lift in support for Israel.

However, ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence is “depressing their physical involvement with Israel, and it’s taxing their emotional energies in identifying with Israel,” he said.

“I think many Jews have already checked out. They’ve said something like ‘a plague on both your houses'; this is all too complicated for me,” Hirsch said.

Hirsch’s own group used to send more than 1,000 adults a year on tours to Israel before the intifada — but has sent hardly anyone since the violence began.

That’s not the only toll the violence has taken.

According to Cohen, the intifada has eclipsed other areas where American Jews could advance their relationship with Israel.

“I think American Jews are overly, and understandably, focused on matters of vulnerability and are failing to engage more broadly with all that Israel has to offer religiously, spiritually, politically and culturally,” he said. “I’m concerned that the focus on vulnerability is both thin and short-lasting.”

Cohen lamented what he sees as the lack of vigorous debate among American Jews about Israel’s social and political ills.

“We run all these missions to teach people how to be advocates about Israel,” he said. “But we don’t hold seminars or discussion groups so that Jews can feel comfortable expressing their concerns, their anxieties, their doubts in a friendly environment.”

The result, he said, is a less sophisticated and less committed American Jewry.

Furthermore, he said, that lack “may be creating a disjuncture that will eventually break.”

Hoenlein, on the other hand, said the issues that once divided American Jews about Israel are not on the table today.

“There are today clearly consensus issues around which people are uniting,” he said, listing the war on terrorism as an example. “If the ‘road map’ and the peace process moves ahead, there will be divisions in the community over some of these issues.”

Hoenlein also noted other ways American Jews have displayed support for Israel, such as buying Israeli products and raising vast sums of money for the Jewish state in fund-raising campaigns.

Jewish communal leaders agree that an emphasis on Israel in Jewish education is key to improving the connection between American Jews and the Jewish state.

“It hasn’t really gotten into the core and the soul of Jewish education,” said Barry Chazan, international education director for birthright israel, which sends young Jews on trips to the Jewish state.

But recent conferences on the topic had sparked a “re-engineering” of the educational system in Jewish federations, he noted.

Hoenlein, who agreed that education about Israel was lacking, noted that anti-Israel activity on college campuses has spawned counter-efforts by Jewish organizations to educate students about Israel.

Encouraging American Jews to visit Israel should be a chief concern of the community, since visiting the country creates a stronger Jewish community, Chazan said.

“To not know Israel is to be deprived as an American Jew, to be deprived of a critical component of our Judaism,” Hirsch agreed. “The collective existence of the Jewish people is organic in the promised land.”

In addition, he noted, Israel “provides a national home for five million of our people who would either have been dispersed, killed or oppressed without Israel.”

That’s a sentiment that Thomas Fryth, 77, a resident at the Jewish Home and Hospital of New York, understands well.

Israel is “our life. It’s our homeland. It’s our place to go,” he said, adding that he would like to die there.

Fryth’s friend Sam Kelberman, 81, shares his attachment.

Kelberman remembered how he felt when Israel was created: It was “an opening and a possibility for survival,” he said.

Today, amid the Palestinian intifada, Kelberman feels even “more attached” to the Jewish state “because of what they had to go through.”

Israel, he said, is simply “the only way Judaism can persist.”

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