David Hazony thinks that Israel can save American Jewish life.
His must-read essay in Tower Magazine, “Israeli Identity and the Future of American Jewry,” outlines the scope of the assimilation problem we are facing.
Oblivion knocks. The two obvious alternatives — aliya and Orthodoxy — require so radical a change in one’s lifestyle that they’re nonstarters for most American Jews. If those were the only options, most would choose oblivion.
Hazony offers a third choice – Israel as a civilizational force, the source of a dynamic Hebrew culture that enables us to construct deeper, richer Jewish lives.
He calls this “Israeliness,” a new form of Jewish identity, and he implores us to tap into it.
Israeliness is a vigorous engagement with Israel the people and Israel the place. It means taking advantage of Israel’s cultural exports, rooted in millennia of Jewish texts and experience. It stands apart from political activism on behalf of Israel.
Israeliness is intended to nourish our Jewish souls, and in turn, those of our children.
Hazony is on to something important. And in the best Israeli sense of being a bit audacious, I’d like to add a thought of my own. Jewish schools, camps, synagogues, and youth groups are essential partners in connecting our kids to the people and culture of Israel.
But Israeliness begins in an Israel-loving home.
Reading Hazony’s piece made me think back on raising our four kids. It was my own quest for a deeper Jewish connection that pulled me toward Hebrew and toward Israel. My family was swept along with me, in an unstoppable momentum that steadily ramped up the Israeliness in our home.
We did not ignore Israeli politics and current events while raising our kids, but they did not dominate either. Our Israeliness was joyful and fun-filled. Idan Rachel’s music — on high volume — rode along with us in the car. Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipes became the most requested dishes. Our kids still remember the thrill of taking Rami Kleinstein to dinner after he performed in Minneapolis.
Visiting Israel as a family became a priority, a dream fulfilled in the summer of 1998. Not only was it the first trip to Israel for our kids, it was also the first for my husband and me. We wanted to experience Israel as a family before our kids headed there on teen programs. Our three-week trip was life-changing. It was, to quote an old song, “coming home to a place you’ve never been before.”
While it took us 41 years to get to Israel for the first time, my husband and I have returned almost 20 times since. Our kids have returned to Israel on teen programs, Birthright, and other family trips. One child spent a semester at Hebrew U, another went on Young Judea’s Gap Year program. I love hearing our kids talk about Israel with familiarity and affection. Each one has a deep bank of experiences to draw upon. Our kids see travel to Israel not as a “one and done” bucket list item, but as a beloved place to return to again and again.
We also brought Israel home by hosting Israeli counselors sent by the Jewish Agency to work at the JCC day camp. Each young adult was a delight, bringing his or her own Israeliness into our home. It was through this program that we got our “fifth kid,” the Israeli girl who became a member of our family. Her wonderful parents, siblings, and cousins became our family in Israel. Through these beloved people we experience an Israel far removed from the tourist scene. When our “Israeli daughter” married in 2009, our whole family traveled to Israel for the wedding. My husband and I even stood under the chuppah, alongside her parents. It was one of the happiest days of my life.
Over time, our family’s circle in Israel has grown, with loved ones in Hadera, Jerusalem, Haifa, and the Galilee. Israel is not an abstraction, a distant country on the map.
Israel is Israelis, the people we know and love.
Now three of our kids are married and raising Jewish families of their own. Our youngest child intends to do the same. How much did being raised in an Israel-loving household shape the choices they have made? That’s impossible to measure. The question reminds me of the times my husband and I have gone to wine tastings. When the sommelier asks, “Do you taste the oakiness in that vintage?” all I can do is stare stupidly and nod yes. The truth? There’s no way I can separate out the flavor of the oak cask in which the grapes aged. It’s all blended together into something wonderful.
Likewise, I cannot tease out the strand of growing up in an Israel-loving home. It’s blended together with other essential strands of raising Jewish kids: Jewish summer camp, Hebrew school, synagogue, youth groups, Shabbat and holiday observance, and more. I cannot quantify the impact of the Israeliness in our home. But I am certain it shaped our kids.
Helping the next generation of parents create Israeliness at home should be a communal priority. I’m glad to be part of our community’s Partnership2Gether program, which pairs Minneapolis with Rehovot for people-to-people programming. It is the essence of what Hazony recommends: “…rediscovering Israel as a country, not just a cause, and yourself as someone searching…”.
And it is this – seeing our Israeli counterparts as resources and partners in this journey.
“Find your own Israel,” Hazony says. We did. I hope you will too.