In my 18 years in the Jewish communal world, I have been asked one question more than any other. After nearly any speech I make, regardless of the topic, a well-meaning Jewish parent or grandparent will come up to me to ask what Jewish organizations can do to help their children or grandchildren feel closer to Israel.
For 18 years, I have given the same answer. There are many wonderful Jewish and pro-Israel organizations doing incredible things to connect young Jews and Israel. As good as many of their programs are, their chances of success go up exponentially if they are reinforcing lessons learned at home.
Over the years, I have learned that many parents are trying to create this connection but making some crucial mistakes in doing so. It dawned on me that I was making a few of the same mistakes with my own kids. So, let me offer publicly the three things we all do wrong when we talk to our kids about Israel.
First, we talk to them about Israel while in the US.
It has never been easier for a young American Jew to go to Israel. Yet more than half of young adults ages 18-29 have never even been there once. The numbers from Pew Research Center surveys in recent years could not be clearer. In 2021, for instance, Pew found that while nearly 60 percent of US Jews personally feel an emotional attachment to Israel, attachment surges to nearly 80% for those who have been to Israel. Admittedly, there is some selection bias at play in the research, as the population of American Jews who have chosen to go to Israel likely overlaps with the population most likely to feel an attachment. Still, these numbers are simply too striking to be ignored.
Your kids need to go to Israel with you, making the family memories that will shape the adults they grow into. You need to touch the walls of the Kotel together, lean gently on each other as you watch the sun rise over Masada, walk the streets of Tel Aviv, ride a bus with Israelis, and get jostled in the Jerusalem market — and know that these ordinary and attainable experiences were the stuff of dreams for Jews just 100 years ago.
Israel is not an easy or inexpensive place to visit — then again, neither are Disney World or Mexico. But we make sacrifices for the things that matter, and we choose to invest when the payoff is high. For those who cannot visit Israel, The Jewish Agency for Israel is committed to bringing Israel to you, with more than 300 Israeli emissaries working in Jewish communities and Jewish institutions as well as on college campuses across the US. We are also proud to offer programs that make Israel travel as easy as possible — such as Masa Israel Journey, which we jointly run with the Government of Israel, and our partnership with RootOne. Masa and RootOne are leaders in providing immersive experiences in Israel, for young adults and teenagers, respectively.
Second, we talk to the younger generation about Israel in English.
According to a 2021 American Jewish Committee survey, only 22% of American Jews report even minimal fluency with the Hebrew language. Remove Israeli Americans and Orthodox Jews from the survey, and that figure plummets.
Can Jews who do not speak Hebrew love Israel? They can and do. Does speaking Hebrew mean that you will agree with Israel on everything it does? That does not appear to be the case for Israelis themselves.
But knowing even a little Hebrew makes a huge difference. It may be possible to love Shakespeare without understanding English, but his prose is simply less magical in translation. Similarly, Israel’s magic is dulled (and understanding of Israel stunted) without Hebrew.
I am not a fluent Hebrew speaker. Languages do not come easily to me. Yet when I came to The Jewish Agency, I decided that it was important to learn Hebrew. What I did not expect was how much I would enjoy speaking Hebrew with my daughter and how much she would tolerate speaking it with me. My daughter will not read this op-ed, nor will she voluntarily come listen to me speak about Israel. But she will spend a few minutes speaking back and forth in Hebrew to me at the dinner table.
You do not need to take Hebrew lessons with your children. Rather, learn Hebrew expressions together and listen to new Israeli music. Spend five minutes a day together on Duolingo, Watch Fauda and Shtisel in the original (with subtitles) and be surprised when you understand a sentence or two. These little acts will make your child feel closer to Israel than any reading you might assign them or Israel advocacy speakers you might go hear.
Finally, we err by talking to our kids about loving Israel instead of showing them how to love Israel.
Teenagers these days have more access to information (and in real time) than any preceding generation. Yet actions speak far louder than words. No matter how many times you tell them that Israel is important, it will not match showing them that Israel is important to you.
Fortunately, there are many steps you can take. Find volunteer opportunities at your local Jewish Federation. Just to name a few: Donate to an Israeli charity that aligns with your shared passions; read a book about Israel (fiction or non-fiction) together and talk about it; speak to your child about their interests and find a way to connect them to Israel, and then plan a related activity you can do together.
The poet Maya Angelou once wrote, “At the end of the day, people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” Israel is a vibrant and dynamic country, and if you just explore a little, you will find a way for it to enrich your life and the lives of your children.
None of this is easy. But doing something worthwhile rarely is. We are prepared to make sacrifices for the education and happiness of our children. We recognize those causes as worthy of investment and effort. Will we make similar sacrifices for their identity?