Israel: A Conversion In Two Parts


Two events in the past few weeks have reinforced my view of Israel as the unifying aspect of Jewish life in New York, while making me question its current status.

Scene One: This year’s Salute to Israel Parade. As I took my place along 5th Avenue, it was clearly evident that more synagogues and community groups than ever before took part in this year’s parade.

Jewish communities within and outside the city limits believed in the importance of supporting Israel, while simultaneously celebrating the culture of the New York Jewry. With shuls from Brooklyn and the Five Towns amongst others making their first appearance in the parade, it was an event that showcased Zionism’s place in our consciousness. Beyond the marchers and the onlookers, those Jews who were not able to attend the parade could participate vicariously by watching it on WWOR-TV New York Channel 9.

For the many of us in attendance that day and others who watched on TV, this was truly an event that placed Israel in the spotlight of New York Jewry. Even for those who have never been to Israel, the parade exemplified the deep diaspora connection with the Jewish State that programs like Birthright Israel have worked to instill in Jewish youth.

Scene Two: Fast forward one week later, when I had the honor attending The Jewish Week’s NYConversation, sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York, where approximately 45 New York area Jews, including congregational rabbis, community professionals and lay leaders gathered for an intimate forum and marketplace of ideas on challenges facing the New York Jewish community. We discussed a number of “hot button” issues, including intermarriage, conflicts between Jewish religious denominations, and the state of inter-group relations in the city. Yet for me, the most relevant and disturbing discussion was on the topic of whether Israel is central to our Jewish lives.

Having seen the outpouring of unrestrained Zionism at the parade a week earlier, I assumed that virtually every participant would answer this question in the affirmative. To my shock and dismay, a significant percentage of the participants took the floor to explain why they didn’t see Israel as central to their Jewish lives. The comments raised were certainly logical—there was Jewish life in the diaspora before Israel, and there would be so if Israel were to cease to exist; America has fully created a haven for Jews to not only be safe but also to prosper; the high quality and quantity of secular Jewish activities in New York results in Israel being a spoke, but not a vital component, of the wheel of New York Jewish; etc.

Yet despite the logic of these comments, I was still puzzled – and a bit troubled – to hear them expressed at an event like The NYConversation.
I spent my junior year of college at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I saw firsthand how that experience propelled so many young Jews into professional jobs in the Jewish community. Surely if any one cross-section of New York Jews would find Israel essential to their lifestyles as Jews, I assumed it would be the participants at this conference.

I left the event firmly believing that for New York Jews under the age of 35, there needs to be a new outlook in the prism through which we view the nation of Israel. We can take pride in the fact that since the New York Jewish community has become such a strong collective, Israel does not always need to be at the center of communal activities. Yet I remain most concerned that if Jews lose their sense of Israel as their Jewish homeland, they could also easily lose the very focus of what Jewish peoplehood is.

The question that I ultimately posed for myself is why Israel struggles to register for Jews in their mid 20s to mid 30s. What I ultimately realized coming out of The NYConversation is that our generation needs to find a new means of defining Israel. The Israel of our grandparents had the rallying cry of being the post-Holocaust haven the Jewish people needed. Our parents lived through the 1967 and 1973 Wars, where a tiny but mighty Israel, on the brink of extinction, showed a fighting spirit that galvanized diaspora affections for the new country. Even without countless summer trips or charity related missions, our parents were able to gain a sense of pride and wonderment from Israel that put the country at the center of their Jewish identity.
My generation’s struggle to define the place of our Israel is one that will not be resolved overnight as we have yet to have “our moment”.

So while the parade demonstrated that the Jewish community can continue to rally and come out to celebrate Israel, The NYConversation event revealed that while Israel is still on the community menu, it is often not the main course. However, after seeing the passion and vibrancy of the dialogue which took place during the two-day retreat I felt enthused in knowing these issues are being explored by my generation’s lay and professional leaders. Those kinds of challenging deliberations will serve not only my generation but generations to come seeking to define “their Israel.”

Neil Steinberg serves as vice president, strategic client development for Synaptic Digital, an online video company. He serves as chair for UJA-Federation’s Community Connections Taskforce and on the cabinet for its NY Jewry Taskforce and Commission on the Jewish People.