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As Emotional Ties to Israel Fray, Federations Worry About Future

February 13, 2002
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As young Jewish leaders waved Israeli flags and speakers exhorted them to go to Israel, it might have seemed strange that federations are concerned about the next generation of leadership and its relationship to Israel.

But anxiety is growing in the Jewish community as the numbers of American Jews visiting Israel — especially young ones — continue to drop.

With 2,000 leaders from around the country gathered in Washington this week for the biennial United Jewish Communities’ Young Leadership Conference, there was a chance to assess where the American Jewish community stands vis-a-vis Israel.

Financial support from communities to Israel remains strong, but emotional attachment seems to be at a crossroads. Fewer people visiting Israel makes it difficult to articulate the necessity of helping Israel, and distances the United States from its ally and friend in the Middle East, the 30- and 40-something-year-old participants in the conference said.

It also makes for uncertainty about future leaders of the American Jewish community.

When teens and college-age young adults go on Israel trips, many forge a lifelong connection to the Jewish state, that later translates into leading positions in the federation system. If fewer youths get that "Israel experience," however, the result could have unwelcome consequences for the Jewish community.

"There could be a long-term drag on leadership development if it goes on too long," UJC’s president and CEO, Stephen Hoffman, told JTA.

Since the Palestinian intifada began 16 months ago, and especially since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, youth movements have canceled summer trips and the American Jewish connection to Israel has been tested, some warn.

Karen Alpiner of Detroit is worried about the dwindling numbers of American Jews visiting Israel and what will happen as fewer people are able to recount firsthand the situation in Israel.

Alpiner wants UJC to sponsor more family missions. The idea is one Hoffman agrees with — but for the future.

"When things get better, we’ll have to make more investments in missions," he said.

Hoffman believes Birthright Israel — the free trip for young people who have never visited Israel before — could alleviate the damage from the decrease in youth trips.

In addition, UJC is considering running an Israel-focused summer camp, with a prototype possible for this coming summer.

On the local level, federations could face a long-term ripple effect on their future leadership. Short-term, however, the effects of Israel’s crisis situation are confusing.

Financial support for Israel seems firm, despite the absence of specific initiatives and the fact that no end appears to be in sight to the intifada, participants said.

Similarities between the domestic situations in Israel and the United States should be emphasized, some said.

Money is being diverted from social services to defense in both countries, said Cara Levinson of Philadelphia, and just as American Jewish communal needs are high, Israelis are hurting and need help.

"That’s the message we have to get out," she said.

The U.S.-Israel relationship is still strong, participants agreed, it just needs some adjustment.

The charged title of one session — "Do We Still Need Israel and Does Israel Need Us?" — got the reaction organizers were likely looking for, as panelists called the question "ridiculous."

But the session was a chance to highlight the effects of "disengagement" and how the divide is growing between American Jews’ financial and emotional support for Israel.

Carol Smokler, president of UJC’s National Women’s Constituency, said American Jews feel the intifada is making Israel dependent on the United States once again.

"We must find a way to raise funds but not be patronizing," she said. "We need to meet each other to know each other."

American Jews cannot just "have a relationship with the mythic land of Israel," she added.

Darrel Friedman, president of the Baltimore Jewish federation, warned against "the turning inward of the American Jewish community," and urged people to keep Israel at the center of their agendas.

Participants at a session on Partnership 2000, which links Israeli and Diaspora communities, also expressed the need for better communication between the two peoples.

However, when Americans talked of helping it was to reach out to Israeli businesses, and when Israelis said they wanted help they talked about how they value personal contact, not just money.

It is time to develop relationships between young leaders that will last beyond crises, according to Avraham Infeld, the counsel for Jewish affairs at Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

"What we Jews are is a family," he said. "You cannot be part of a relationship unless you are part of this family."

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