Hardly a week goes by without the announcement of a new study demonstrating (a) the ever-growing distance between American Jewry and Israel, (b) that the distance isn’t as great as was thought, or, (c) that only those who didn’t have a particular kind of Israel experience between the ages of 16 and 36 are truly distant. These announcements came to a crescendo in the run up to October’s Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly and its heavily-dissected byline, “We need to talk.” The announcements have quieted down now…at least for a few weeks.
These reflections are prompted, I admit, by the release of another report, in this case one for which I’m partly responsible, along with my colleagues at Rosov Consulting. This report — Devoted, Disillusioned and Disengaged: The Forces that Shape a Relationship with Israel — does not make any new claims about whether American Jews are more or less distant from Israel. It does however offer some new lenses on this relationship and what shapes it. Most significantly, this report has profound implications for how Jewish day schools and other educational institutions should teach about Israel.
To make clear what those implications are we need to take a short digression:
It is a signature of our age that tasks that were once the responsibility of families have been devolved to schools. In recent times, schools have been asked to instruct their pupils on how to drink sensibly, eat healthily, vote conscientiously and take a responsible attitude toward sex. In some communities, schools are even providing children with the breakfasts their parents are unable to provide.
The same patterns apply in Jewish education. Look at how often the word “love” appears in day school mission statements. They promise to cultivate a love of Israel…of the Jewish people…of God. And more. One would have thought that the home is where love is best cultivated, but schools are having to pick up the slack when parents can’t do these things themselves. And when it comes to Israel, schools seem to be struggling to cultivate either love or real understanding, an outcome one would have expected they’d be better suited to cultivating.
This, at least, is the conclusion suggested by our new report, based on two rounds of in-depth interviews with day school alumni. The first round of data-gathering in fact took place when the 40 interviewees were high school juniors in a variety of US day schools. At that time, interviewers probed their thoughts and feelings about Israel. Seven years later our team tracked down the same individuals to various corners of the United States and Israel and asked them many of the same questions.
What makes this work so compelling is not the numbers of those interviewed. The power of the data come, first, because we were able to invite interviewees to reflect on their earlier opinions and on what had changed and/or stayed the same. Second, we were talking to people over a span of time during which they had been exposed to tremendously formative life experiences: leaving home, attending university, spending time abroad, serving in the army, taking a first job. The interviews were intense. They were videoed on both occasions. Some are uncomfortable to watch.
Despite the narrative of groups such as IfNotNow, the members of this sample – with one exception – did not feel they had been duped by their day schools; they did not believe that they had been intentionally mislead about the “real Israel.” In fact, they expressed a good deal of empathy for the good intentions of their schools. They were, though, deeply frustrated, even angry. Most had been educated in day schools for 12 years, and felt they had been short-changed. They complained that with respect to Israel, they received an education that was banal, simplistic or shallow.
This takes us back to the question of whether schools are capable of doing any better, especially if these were the results of educators acting with good intentions. Having had the opportunity to study Jewish day schools over the last 20 years, I’m inclined to think they are. I’ve been involved in projects that document what better can look like (see here).
Looking closely at the form and content of the forces that did positively shape the relationships of the young people in this study to Israel, there are promising opportunities to adapt and adopt such experiences to the day school context. In the report we start to sketch these out. They involve cultivating meaningful social associations with Israel (real, interpersonal memories), developing deep cultural connections with the country (especially connections that are not exclusively religious), and engaging honestly with political questions about Israel.
When I presented findings from this study for the first time a few weeks ago at The Jewish Agency conference, Israel Education: The Next Edge, a member of the audience asked, “Are you saying that day schools are a lost cause?” I was taken aback. I actually think day schools are one of the few strong bets for those interested in a vital and vibrant Jewish future. To realize that bet when it comes to Israel, they need to help students weave the social, cultural, and political dimensions of a relationship to Israel. Many educators have already signed on to Makom’s notion of “hugging and wrestling” with Israel. As we write in the report, I’m suggesting that it’s time to hug Israel with seriousness, not just sentimentally, and to wrestle not only with Israel’s political situation but with its Jewish cultural significance too.