Americans may love a hero, but will they still love a hero showing all its warts?
The North American Federation of Temple Youth is betting they will.
The 1,200 Reform teenagers who gathered Feb. 19 in downtown Philadelphia for NFTY’s 2007 convention talked about Israel in a way few American Jews do, acknowledging its bewildering complexity and what they see as its frequent failures.
Touching on everything from the Jewish state’s treatment of Reform Jews to Israeli hip-hop, the convention’s hourlong sessions were preceded by a high-tech extravaganza linking the Philadelphia facility with a kibbutz in Israel where several Reform teens are spending the semester.
As their grinning faces filled giant color screens, the Israel-based students gushed about their experience and urged fellow youth-group participants to follow their footsteps to the Jewish state.
The centrality of Zionism in the Reform youth movement, known by its acronym NFTY, is itself something of a novelty in a movement whose founding document, the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, included the wholesale rejection of Jewish nationalism.
That began to change in the 1930s with the recognition that Jews needed a place of refuge, according to Jeffrey Gurock, a historian at Yeshiva University. The shift generated a split between reformers and classical Reform Jews, but over time the traditionalists lost out.
“Over the course of time, that becomes the dominant expression within Reform,” Gurock said.
Leonard Spring, 84, who served as the federation’s first president from 1946 to 1948, told JTA that when he was in NFTY, there was little Hebrew used and hardly any attention paid to the rebirth of the Jewish commonwealth.
Israel’s significance, he said, has “tremendously increased, as it should.”
In recent years NFTY has resolved to promote Hebrew literacy among its members, and in 2005 it affiliated with Netzer Olami, the worldwide Reform Zionist youth group.
But at a time when the Jewish community is struggling to define the parameters of acceptable Israel programming, NFTY not only tolerates criticism of Israel but generates it.
The document establishing Zionism as the conference study theme notes that federation-sponsored Israel programs “commonly offer only blind support of Israel” and resolves to promote Zionist education without papering over the nation’s flaws.
Presenters at the conference spoke unsparingly about the Israeli Reform movement’s struggle for equality and of a country that often falls short of its own ideals.
Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Reform Action Center, told 25 teens how some non-observant Israelis go to Cyprus to get married to escape Orthodox control of marriage in Israel. She mentioned the 60 or so lawsuits a year filed by her center, which works to defend civil rights and religious pluralism in Israel.
And Hoffman described her successful struggle to persuade Israel’s national phone company to provide customers with itemized bills, providing a firsthand account of the utter dysfunction of bureaucracy in Israel — a country that until recently, she noted, did not have a word for “accountability.”
“Do you know what it means when there isn’t a word for something?” she asked. “It means the concept doesn’t exist.”
Still, Hoffman said her presentation of Israeli life, even with its problems, was effective in winning the affections of American teens.
“Americans love a hero, and they love a hero that works against all odds,” she told JTA after her presentation. “I want them to root for us.”
In another workshop, which addressed the question of whether one had to agree with everything Israel does to be considered a Zionist, one participant wanted to know why Israel had the right to kick out the Palestinians who lived there first.
Another participant wondered why NFTY was encouraging travel to a country that doesn’t recognize Reform Jews as Jews.
“How do you reconcile the ideal Israel with the real Israel?” asked Rabbi Elliott Kleinman, director of programming at the Union for Reform Judaism and the senior staff person at the convention. “If we’re not honest with kids … we can’t expect them to have the love and affection we hope they will for the land of Israel.”
Despite studies that show younger Jews feel less connected to each other and to Israel, the NFTY members interviewed by JTA said it was not the bonds with Israel that they question, only what those bonds entail.
Eli Gottlieb of Bethlehem, N.Y., said he often is made to feel disloyal for criticizing Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, but said his commitment to the Jewish state is unwavering.
“In my opinion, the best way to help Israel overcome its challenges is to go there and be a part of Israel,” he said.