It’s really annoying being Robin. Always the number two, always standing in the shadow of Batman. But then, perhaps it’s my destiny – to always be behind the scenes. I am not a caped crusader. But I am an informal Jewish educator at UJIA. And every year my team and I provide support for the mass (temporary) migration of Jewish 16 year-olds from the United Kingdom to Israel on a summer tour programme. Unfortunately for me, it’s the madrichim (youth leaders) who get to actually take the kids round Israel, while I assist back in sunny old London.
I passionately believe in the power of the Israel story as an unparalleled identity-builder and community-connector. But this power can only be unlocked if we change how we think about both Israel and the spaces we create to talk about Israel.
Many from the older generation who remember the birth of the State of Israel have supported her, unwaveringly, ever since. And others in our community, lacking confidence in either Israel itself or young people’s ability to come to their own conclusions, want to use these Israel experiences to close down, rather than open up, conversations. Things are different now, and we need to have the courage to bring young people to Israel, ask the right questions and embrace the many answers the participants might have.
We know that the engagement of young Diaspora Jews with Israel cannot be taken for granted. Israel itself has changed. It remains under threat but there isn’t that sense among young people that the Jewish State could disappear. Also, whilst there is much to be celebrated and savoured about Israeli society and culture, it has also proven alienating for some – for example, the conflict between religion and state, and the difficulties faced by minorities.
The answer to this is not to shy away from these conflicts, but to educate about them, showing how visionary Israelis are dealing with these challenges. As I said before, I am supremely confident that the real Israel – the Israel that Israelis experience – is a fantastic, inspiring place. We need to “show and tell” British teens about it, not hide it away beneath the veneer of superficiality.
A proper, authentic encounter with Israel will make it easier, not harder, to deal with the toxic atmosphere on university campuses – another key communal concern.
Every year, the charity I work for, UJIA, helps fund and implements one of the most successful Israel Experience programmes in the world, in partnership with the Jewish Agency for Israel. Together we work with all of the UK’s youth movements, from socialist Habonim Dror to orthodox Bnei Akiva and beyond, to ensure there is choice for families. Each movement has its own ideology, values and traditions, yet they also come together, under the auspices of UJIA Israel Experience, to train madrichim together, to share best practice and to learn from each other.
If our youth movements can display unity without uniformity when it comes to Israel, I have confidence that the rest of the community can too. Israel is far too important to all of us to let our institutional egos get in the way of bringing as many young people as we can to Israel to experience it for themselves.
This summer, in spite of the Gaza conflict, 1,230 16 year-olds visited Israel on a three to four week programme, comprising over 50% of the age cohort (excluding the Charedi community). Through UJIA, a further 150 young adults (21+) participated in Taglit-Birthright Israel for people who missed out when they were 16. Additionally, we support over 500 18+ year-olds to spend between five months and a year in Israel on a long-term programme, where they are immersed in Israeli society and culture.
This is how we engage our young people with Israel, and energise them about being Jewish, whatever that means to them.
One participant on Israel Tour 2014, Tabitha, had never been to Israel before. By her own admission there wasn’t much that would define her as Jewish; she didn’t have a Bat Mitzvah and was not involved on a communal level. But after Israel Tour, her words say it all: “I feel much more in touch with my Jewish side, and more connected to Israel, because I’ve been here and experienced what it’s like.”
This story is just one of many and demonstrates that taking young people to see and experience Israel can be key to ensuring the long term strength of our community. The ability of our young people to both maintain their own meaningful relationship with Israel, and be successful character witnesses (as His Excellency Daniel Taub, Israeli Ambassador to the UK, so brilliantly puts it) on her behalf, will provide the future leadership of the Anglo-Jewish community in the years to come.
Show and tell – it’s child’s play really!