American Jews in Search of Direction

I have just returned to Israel from a fund raising and awareness raising trip on behalf of Im Tirtzu, the Zionist Israeli NGO that has created a nationwide network of branches on Israeli campuses designed to foster Zionism and to combat its de-legitimization.

Together with our CEO, Matan Peleg, I visited with existing and prospective donors and supporters on both coasts. While the meetings were candid, supportive and stimulating, there was one recurrent theme we encountered that made a strong impression on both of us: the search for a direction and a template to help American Jews both to support Israel and to affirm their Jewishness.

Because of Im Tirtzu’s conspicuous success in building a highly active grass roots network of campus activists – a network that has increasingly commanded media attention and governmental support – many of our meetings focused on how we might be able to apply this experience to various facets of American Jewish life.

Leaving aside the difficult question of how transferable that experience might be to American soil, what struck us – jarred us might be a better term – was the searching and the uncertainty that we encountered.

While I had read the Pew study as to the decline of affiliation among American Jews and the growing assimilation of the community, the real world experiences and challenges that we heard were more powerful than any statistics.

One campus activist at a very prominent West Coast university who had had previous success in creating a nucleus of Zionist  supporters for Israel before leaving the campus, was now seeking to return to the campus to reinvigorate the effort.

He asked whether we could provide some help with energizing the students because the current state of affairs  on campus basically demanded an apology for Israel’s existence before asking students to support it.

Similarly, a 30-something prospective activist in New York City confessed that many of her friends were all dressed and ready to go in  supporting Israel, but had not found an outlet for such support that was not either abjectly apologetic nor unrealistically bubbly.  Again, perhaps we could provide a framework and direction.

There were several more meetings along similar lines.

While we were certainly  not attempting to survey the American Jewish community, the anecdotal evidence was compelling: there was a strong sense that ideas, initiatives and momentum were to be found in Israel and not in America.

I must say that as an oleh from America, who continues to revere the spirit of America, this was depressing. The self assuredness was gone, the sense – sometimes the overweaning sense – that America had the answers was gone.

What we experienced has been reflected by the policies of The Jewish Agency and now even the Government of Israel: Israel needs to reach out to America and the Diaspora as a whole to provide leadership in framing the case not only for Israel, but also for Judaism, and the Jewish People.

Perhaps one can lay the blame on the multi-cultural morass in America that has robbed Jewishness of its particularity, and Jews of a sense of why they need to continue to adhere and to follow their unique tradition.

But I would rather look at it as the fulfillment of the genius of the Zionist enterprise: that only in a sovereign, holistically Jewish milieu can Judaism thrive, prosper and blossom into its full flower as the light unto the nations.

As often happens in life, sometimes you need to step outside your sphere to better perceive what is going on within it. So too here. For all our many problems, challenges and frustrations, a trip to America is a bracing reminder of how well the Jewish destiny – despite all of its problems – is unfolding in Israel.

About the Author
After a successful money management career in NYC, Doug Altabef made aliyah to Rosh Pina with his wife Linda and their youngest of four kids in 2009. As a money manager, Doug was a frequent guest commentator on Bloomberg TV, CNNfn TV as well as Wall Street Radio, which was syndicated out to dozens of radio stations throughout the US. Today he spends his time serving as Chairman of the Board of Im Tirtzu and a Director of the Israel Independence Fund, where he has been privileged to get some amazing insights into how people are making a difference here. Doug also has invested in several early stage Israeli companies and is a big believer in the Start Up Nation attractiveness of Israeli technology.