News stories have warned us of an unprecedented distancing between Israeli and North American Jewry. The recent decision of actress Natalie Portman to turn down the Genesis Prize – an award that celebrates Jewish achievement and contributions to humanity – has only exacerbated these fears.
It seems that each side doesn’t fully grasp the difficulties the other is facing, and that there’s a substantial disagreement concerning many of Israel’s policies.
None of Israel’s decision-makers disputes the fact that the support of Jews living outside Israel is of paramount strategic importance. An Israel absent of global Jewish backing would be weakened and limited, with implications on its economy, security and international status.
World Jewry is a force multiplier, appropriating resources to Israel’s communities and national tasks and a supporter of Israel’s interests on an international level, serving as a vital partner in fulfilling the Zionist vision of the Jewish people’s resurrection in its historic homeland.
The concern regarding the strain on the relationship has risen in light of the serious debate regarding Israeli politics and the status and rights of the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations in Israel.
In this digital era that equips everyone with a voice and a stage, an additional parallel reality has been created. This reality is not dependent on a few dozen organizations on opposite sides of the Atlantic concerned with politics and pluralism, but thousands of personal and public forums for young Jews. These forums, available across social media channels, host lively human interaction and constant, rich dialogue.
A Brandeis University study of Birthright Israel alumni revealed that young adult Jews – in particular compared to their parents' generation – are highly connected to Israel and fewer than 10 percent describe themselves as "not all connected."
The communication between the millennial generation doesn’t necessarily revolve around disagreements and ideologically charged issues, but on shared diverse interests, personal views and universal concepts.
These relationships, based on daily continuous human interaction, mirror an unrecognized channel of the relations between Israel and world Jewry that could provide a new foundation for its future and anchor them for years to come.
In its 18 years, Birthright Israel – established as a partnership between Jewish philanthropists and the Israeli government – has welcomed over 500,000 young adult Jews from around the world, providing them with free 10-day educational trips to Israel.
Birthright Israel participants have met with about 100,000 young Israelis. These encounters have served as the basis for hundreds of thousands of different personal longstanding connections – the most substantial network of connections in Jewish history.
These young people – representing a variety of opinions, backgrounds and voices – share Facebook groups, visit each other, provide each other with information and help one another promote common interests like career, school and hobbies. They even provide support and encouragement in times of crisis.
Of course, discussions regarding political and religious issues are also parts of these encounters, but they are built on respectful dialogue, not overruling argument, as is often portrayed in the media.
And although for some it has been accepted wisdom that young Jewish millennials are distancing themselves from Israel, there is substantial evidence to the contrary. A Brandeis University study of Birthright Israel alumni revealed that young adult Jews – in particular compared to their parents' generation – are highly connected to Israel and fewer than 10 percent describe themselves as "not all connected."
After their trips to Israel, participants’ connection to Israel is shown to rise by 40 percent. And over 70 percent express an interest in returning to Israel within five years.
We’ve also learned that 72 percent of Birthright Israel participants felt strongly that their interactions with Israelis on the trip made them aware of what they had in common. And 64 percent reported that the trip led to personal connections with Israelis – important because Birthright Israel alumni make up nearly half of American young adult Jews.
This doesn’t for one minute lessen the importance of the “official channel” and institutional connection between communities. It is our duty to constantly work to preserve them. But we also must not overlook the unquestionable parallel and promising reality that’s being formed.
It is up to us to promote the human encounter this requires to create a cross-generational, long-term and shared reality for us all.