The results of the survey of attitudes of American Jews in “A Portrait of Jewish America,” conducted by Pew Research and published October 1, have sent shock waves through the American Jewish community. One disturbing aspect of the survey results is the lack of connection younger Jews have to the State of Israel.
The survey found that while over half of those Jews 65 and older feel caring about Israel is an essential aspect of what it means to be Jewish, of those 30 and younger, only 32 percent feel this way. Equally startling, 68 percent of American Jews in high school or younger have not been to Israel. These results show that the number of young people who feel connected to Israel is drastically declining.
There is hope! Interviews conducted with Seattle-area high school students who recently traveled to Israel paint a different picture. While many Jewish teens are choosing to be unaffiliated and secular, some are strengthening their Jewish identity and connection with Israel.
These summer programs enrich high school students and instill them with a love and appreciation of the Jewish identity and homeland.
Amit Perlin, a junior at the Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences, went on the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI) program and said he “gained a stronger Jewish identity, which includes Israel.”
Amit’s experience with Alexander Muss entailed studying in Israel for eight weeks last spring and essentially attending high school in Israel, credits and all. Every week, Amit had classes as they hiked around Israel and learned by experiencing the land one step at a time. He also learned Jewish history from the Biblical beginning of Adam, to the creation of Zionism, to present-day Israel.
“There was a lot to learn in little time,” he said. The hardest part, according to Amit, was at first “24/7 being with people I never met and [going] out of your comfort zone.” But overall, an amazing experience.
Leah Ball, a senior at Auburn Riverside High School, went on United Synagogue Youth Israel Pilgrimage/Poland Seminar. “I never felt so Jewish before,” she said. Leah spent one week in Poland and four weeks in Israel with USY. Her “views were extended,” she said. “I learned more than I thought I did.”
Leah realized that “the world is huge, but it’s also really small.”
Leah created connections with strangers she encountered in Israel, which she called a testament to the Jewish identity she developed on her trip. Leah also shared an intense tie with her peers based on what they experienced together. Leah recalls they all “cried together over tragedies that brought us closer than we ever could have gotten.”
Albert Hanan, a junior at Northwest Yeshiva High School, went on National Council of Synagogue Youth’s (NCSY) program, The Jewish Journey. This month-long program began in the north of Israel and toured down all the way down to the south, full of hikes, visits to kibbutzim, and exploring. With his program “open and accepting” of different levels of religiosity, Albert shared that “it was interesting to learn about different types of Judaism and how other people connect to Judaism.”
Albert also discovered the culture of Israel, saying it fascinated him to see that even though Israelis share our religion, the culture is very different. In the end, Albert explained that his group “really had become as close as a family.”
From Amit, Leah, and Albert’s experiences, it is clear that although Israel is a foreign land in some ways to Jewish America, a common connection will always bring us back and link us to the homeland. Each said they grew as people and as Jews as their two identities became one. Leah said there are “no words” to describe how amazing it was.
So if “A Portrait of Jewish America” finds that younger Jews have less of a connection to the state and land of Israel and that Israel is not essential to their Jewish identity, I think these three would beg to differ.