Improved Understanding of Israel is Goal of Program for Young Jews

When Shila Khasani showed up in Israel for a government-run seminar on the Jewish state for young European Jewish leaders, she was on the alert for brainwashing.

A skeptic by nature, Khasani expected she would be told to toe an uncompromising government line.

But she was surprised by the presentation of a wide array of conflicting viewpoints from government representatives and others, and went home with a more nuanced understanding of Israel and its place in the world.

“It was not at all like” I expected, Khasani, a 27-year-old university graduate from Heidelberg, said at a press conference Monday at the Israeli Embassy in Berlin.

“Questions were posed, by both participants and speakers, that made people break out in a sweat sometimes,” she said. “That was the best — that we heard different ideas, different opinions.”

Khasani is the eighth German to receive a diploma from the Bayit Meshutaf young leaders’ program, initiated in 1999 by Israel’s Foreign Ministry. So far, 145 young Jews from around the world have completed the two-week program on topics ranging from Israel’s economy, security and sociology to worldwide anti-Semitism.

Bayit Meshutaf was created for English-speaking, Jewish college graduates younger than 35. The program aims to build connections between Israel and Diaspora Jews, and to help strengthen a new generation of Jewish leaders outside Israel.

The program is part of an Israeli effort to build support for the Jewish state by strengthening Israel-Diaspora connections. The effort has taken on a special urgency against the backdrop of worldwide criticism of Israel’s handling of the Palestinian intifada and as surveys show Zionist sentiment weakening among Diaspora Jews.

Recently, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the main organization promoting immigration to Israel, initiated a task force aimed at supporting Jewish life in Germany. The project seeks to reinforce links between Israel and German Jews.

Bayit Meshutaf’s goal of empowering young Jewish leaders may be its greatest challenge. In Germany, Khasani said, it has been hard to convince the country’s Jewish establishment to take the younger generation seriously.

“The current leaders are missing an opportunity,” Khasani said. “We are the future.”

Khasani, who completed a degree in Jewish studies and sociology, comes from a family of Jewish leaders. Her father, Asher Khasani, who came to Germany from Iran in 1957, is descended from a long line of rabbis and heads the Jewish community of Hof on the Saale.

“I came to Germany to study medicine, and to research for myself and others why our brethren were killed here, and to show the Germans that we are here and not destroyed,” Asher Khasani said.

For Shila Khasani, the Bayit Meshutaf program provided more than a chance to learn about Israel; she also got to know 14 other young Jewish leaders from across Europe.

“We share similar problems and experiences,” Khasani said. “Before, I didn’t know any Jews from Finland or Ireland.”

The participants are creating an Internet forum to stay in touch.

Now, several months after her return from Israel, Khasani is looking for work in Germany, preferably in the Jewish community. But she said she is considering making aliyah one day.

“Clearly, we want all the Jews in the world to come to Israel,” said the director of public relations for the Israeli Embassy in Berlin, Joel Lion, who presented the diploma to Khasani. “But everyone is free to choose.”

For now, it is important that these young leaders understand Israel so they can build ties with Israel at home, he said.

“We want them to have not only slogans, but also an understanding of what Israel is,” Lion said. “It is nice to say you will demonstrate for Israel, but the essential thing is, what do you know about Israel?”

This is especially true for the many Jewish immigrants in Germany from the former Soviet Union, Lion said.

“A person need not have much previous knowledge about Israel to attend” Bayit Meshutaf, he said, but one does need self-confidence.

“That is what is important for the Jewish community of Germany.” he said. “These young leaders have power.”

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