JERUSALEM – More than 100 Israeli leaders gathered with Jewish-American counterparts in Jerusalem last month with a daunting mission: to save Jewish life in North America.
Jewish American leaders have known for years that assimilation and intermarriage were slowly shrinking their communities, but the early November gathering took on an extra sense of urgency. Just weeks earlier, a landmark study had found that young American Jews are growing increasingly estranged from Judaism.
As these efforts press ahead, they are being complicated by a new issue: What role can Israel play in Jewish American life at a time when many American Jews, who tend to be socially liberal, have misgivings about some of Israel's policies.
There is a broad consensus that Israel will be an important player in solving the problems of American Jewry. Yet experts say that it cannot ignore the alienation that many Americans feel over perceived religious intolerance, Israel's construction of West Bank settlements and the continued control over millions of Palestinians.
"An Israel which doesn't address these issues is an Israel which in the long run endangers the relationship with world Jewry," said Donniel Hartman, who leads an initiative called iEngage, which encourages dialogue about perceptions of Israel with American Jews and which sent representatives to November's gathering. He said Jews who don't believe Israel shares their liberal values may disconnect from it.
Israel's newfound influence in the debate on American Jewry represents something of a role reversal. U.S. Jews have traditionally been a lifeline, raising hundreds of millions of dollars and lobbying American governments on behalf of the Jewish state. Today, Israel is a thriving, affluent and modern country, albeit with some unique problems.
During November's meetings, participants spent two days brainstorming on ways to bring young unaffiliated Jews back to their roots.
The meeting, organized by the Israeli prime minister's office, was part of a campaign to strengthen Jewish identity among young Jews and solidify their connection to Israel. Some 120 representatives from Jewish organizations and a number of Israeli government ministries pledged to formulate a plan by next year to address assimilation.
Alan Hoffman, the director of the Jewish Agency, said the effect of Israel's policies on American Jewish identities was not discussed.
Still, officials say Israel is essential to cementing Jewish identity.
"It's clear to us that if you are not part of the Orthodox world and are not connected to Israel, you assimilate," said Natan Sharansky, the head of the semi-governmental Jewish Agency, which works as a link between Jews around the world. "We need to show how much your life is more interesting, more significant if part of your identity is also a deep connection to Israel."
Israel has already invested more than $125 million trying to bring young Jews to visit, either on short tours or longer-term programs to strengthen their ties with the country. More than 300,000 young Jews from around the world have travelled to Israel on Birthright, a free 10-day trip funded by Israel as well as Jewish philanthropists. Studies show that while the trips foster a connection to Israel, that link does not always last.
Now, beyond just pumping money into Israel-related programs, Israel has established a task force and convened the Jerusalem meeting to consider a longer term strategy to keep Jews Jewish.
"I know that we have that inner strength to guarantee the Jewish future. I know it and you know it and together we're going to achieve exactly that — to defend and secure the Jewish people and the one and only Jewish state," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the gathering of Jewish leaders.
The results of the discussions will only be seen next year and it's not yet apparent what Israel can do to reverse the trend.
Ideas floated at the Jerusalem meeting included targeting young Jews on college campuses, engaging them once they return from trips like Birthright and bringing Jews to Israel younger and more often.
Hartman's initiative, iEngage, was last week adopted by American leaders of the Reform movement, the largest stream of Judaism in the U.S., as a way to strengthen ties to Israel in the context of American Jewish values.
Hartman says the project is meant to help connect young American Jews to Israel by changing the relationship between the world's two largest Jewish communities into one of equality. Hartman said that includes openly discussing Israel's disputed policies rather than blindly supporting them.
Israel generally views the American Jewish community as a strategic asset. But cracks in the relationship have emerged.
The Pew Research Center's report found U.S. Jews disapprove of Israel's policies in the West Bank, which it has occupied since the 1967 Mideast war and is claimed by the Palestinians. It showed that only 17 percent of American Jews say Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank is helpful to Israel's security. Forty-four percent said it hurts Israel's security.
Still, the Pew report showed that seven in 10 Jews consider themselves attached or very attached to Israel and 61 percent said they believe Israel can coexist peacefully alongside an independent Palestinian state.
The world's two largest Jewish communities have also disagreed over religious affairs. The liberal Reform and Conservative Jewish movements, which make up the majority of the American Jewish population, are marginal in Israel, where the Orthodox establishment rules many aspects of life, like marriage, divorce and burials. The liberal groups have struggled to make inroads in Israel, and the Orthodox rabbinate has refused to recognize their rulings on key matters as religiously valid.
The disagreements have been most evident at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, where the customs of the liberal streams have been restricted so as to not offend Orthodox worshippers. One crisis was recently defused, when Israel agreed to erect a special mixed-gender prayer section. Orthodox tradition forbids men and women from praying together, whereas the other denominations do not.
Despite those disputes, having Israel join the effort to halt assimilation lends the mission "strong symbolic value," said Steven M. Cohen, a professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, who also consulted on the Pew study.
Above all, Israel's interests lie in preserving its supporters in North America, he said.
"To what extent do Jews care about Israel and to what extent do they support Israel's policies? If you're a political leader in Israel, both factors come into account," he said.