Engaging Young Diaspora Jews in Israel’s Future

Yahel 2022/23 Social Change Fellows
Yahel 2022/23 Social Change Fellows

From Spectator to Active Partner: Engaging Young Diaspora Jews in Israel’s Future

by Dana Talmi and Benji Bernstein

October 7th 2023 was one of the darkest days in modern Jewish history. More than 1,200 people brutally murdered and over 200 taken hostage in a sinister, unimaginable pogrom inside the State of Israel on the holy day of Simchat Torah. Not only did this catastrophe induce a deep collective trauma across Israeli society and the Jewish diaspora—one that will remain with us for many years to come—but it also revealed and unleashed a level of global anti-Semitism that many of us (perhaps naively) did not perceive as a serious threat within our lifetimes.

The writers of this piece have known each other for almost 10 years. Benji – a young millennial Jew, originally from New Jersey – now residing in New York, working in tech. Dana – an Israeli woman who has lived all over the world but is now deeply involved in social change work in Israel. From 2015 – 2016, Benji spent over nine months in the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood of Rishon LeZion as part of the Yahel Social Change Fellowship run by Yahel – an organization Dana founded 14 years ago. For the past decade we have spoken numerous times about the connection of young Diaspora Jews to Israel–a topic we are both deeply passionate about. 


During my Yahel Fellowship experience, I worked in an underserved neighborhood in Israel where about 40% of the population is Ethiopian-Israeli. Our experience included building programs and working daily with at-risk youth at the local community center, and tutoring kids whose families receive welfare support. My peers and I saw challenging sides of life in Israel but also tremendous resilience and strength. Through the direct service work and the many learning opportunities that came with it, we met inspiring and dedicated local leaders who wake up every day with an unrelenting purpose–to make life better for marginalized communities in Israel and the Palestinian territories. They ranged from local change makers facilitating leadership development programs for at-risk youth, to social entrepreneurs running Hebrew and Arabic language-based coexistence programs for Israeli and Arab students in school districts across the region.

Benji Bernstein with his Yahel Host Family during a visit to Israel in 2019

Today – when I think about Israel, these are the people that come to mind first—not Smotrich, Ben Gvir, or the other extremists in Bibi’s far-right coalition. Rather, it is the vibrant society on the ground, filled with selfless, impactful leaders—people that I worked with side by side every day during my time on the Yahel Fellowship—that will continue to move Israeli society forward. And they need the Jewish Diaspora’s support in their critical work.

Sadly, the social media battles we are seeing today are lacking the nuance and compassion that is so necessary right now. Progressive circles that many of my Jewish peers and I are a part of, are increasingly presenting us with a false dichotomy: either choose progressivism or choose Israel—telling us that we can’t have both. This false choice is baffling, especially because some of the most progressive and socially impactful leaders that I know are Israelis, like Dana, working to effect lasting social change for both Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Dana and Benji:

These voices need to be elevated, especially during such dark and polarizing times. It is time to expose diaspora Jews to a more nuanced understanding of Israeli society—beyond the conflict and headlines. They need to experience the many diverse viewpoints on a variety of historical and sociopolitical issues, from residents across Jewish, Arab and other ethnic backgrounds. Being connected to these changemakers is what has moved us and so many Yahel alumni to become more informed partners and supporters of Israelis on the ground.

As the Talmudic sages stated in Pirkei Avot, “You are not required to finish your work, yet neither are you permitted to desist from it.” In the North American Jewish community, we should make more space for a message like this one when it comes to engagement with Israel. We can be unabashedly pro-Israel and Zionist by actively supporting those on the ground who are working to build a better future for Israel. We should teach young Jewish teens and college students about the work of these change makers, and create more opportunities for them to connect and learn from them directly. We shouldn’t shy away from the core issues as much as we have historically, but rather, amplify those working to promote a shared and equitable society on the ground—the people who are tackling many of these core issues head on.

This type of more nuanced engagement can help move North American progressive Jews beyond thinking of Israel as just a distant “concept” shaped by the latest news (that sometimes conflicts with their progressive values), to a place that they can learn about, connect with more deeply through the people living there, and help impact positively in a variety of ways. This approach helps build resilience and commitment to Israel among progressive and liberal young Jews around the world. We have seen it firsthand among ourselves and countless others.

Yahel Rishon LeZion 2022/23 Social Change Fellows

The idea that Jews in the diaspora can partner with and support Israelis to help actively build a better Israel—is one that needs to be learned and experienced. We have seen that this concept can resonate with diaspora Jews across the political spectrum, in contrast to a more superficial, “Israel is always right” mentality that some are originally taught, and can potentially grow to repudiate as they learn more about the conflict. 

In fact, “Israel is always right” is not what Zionism was ever supposed to be about. Many original liberal and progressive Zionist thinkers held as their highest mandate to continue working to build Israeli society into a just and equitable place for all of its residents. We can continue working toward that vision for Zionism in the diaspora by connecting with and supporting the Israelis on the ground that resonate most deeply with our individual values and perspectives.

We know that on many fronts, we cannot go back to what we did prior to October 7th. With a growing desire of many to support Israel, this is our time to extend an open invitation – to help rebuild Israeli society, to support those leaders and movements who will shape Israel’s future for the better, to include nuance in Israel curriculum – and to step in as true partners, beyond spectators, to support positive change.

About the Author
Born in England and raised in the Netherlands and Israel, Dana has over 15 years of experience working in the fields of experiential education and service learning. She started her career as a tour guide in Israel in Hebrew, English, and Dutch. After working for several years as a tour guide throughout Israel, Dana moved to the United States and continued her involvement in Jewish education. She was an educator at the Teva Learning Alliance and a teacher at the Florence Melton School. In 2002, Dana led her first service learning trip to Honduras and Ukraine with the American Jewish World Service (AJWS). She continued leading service-learning programs for Jewish college students for the next few years. In 2005, she joined the AJWS staff and was responsible for hiring, training, and managing group leaders for service-learning trips to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In 2007 Dana returned to Israel with her family and soon after, founded Yahel – Israel Service Learning. Dana holds a B.A. in Israel studies from Bar-Ilan University and an M.S.W. with a focus on community organizing and group work from the University of North Carolina. Dana loves living in Zichron Ya’akov with her husband and three children. She currently serves on the board of Atzum – Justice Works and the Keshet Pluralistic and Democratic School in Zichron Yaakov.
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