In Response to Pew: Tel Aviv

Walking through the crowded mecca of Jewish networking that is the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, I bumped into “the international mayor of Tel Aviv” (as the press likes to call him), Jay Shultz. He must be on a panel about engagement with “millennials” (Jews born after 1980), I thought.

Turns out he wasn’t, even though he should’ve been. Shultz and a collegiate of fellow olim from English-speaking countries have filled a void in the paradoxical phenomenon of Jewish communal life in Tel Aviv.

When he’s not working as a hi-tech and real-estate investor, the serial entrepreneur runs the Am Yisrael Foundation, the umbrella of seven organizations he has set up to attract Jews to the homeland by leveraging the creativity of Israel’s sexiest city. Collectively, the TLV-based non-profits initiate events and projects dealing with Israeli politics, civic action, culture, and immigrant absorption. White City Shabbat offers communal Shabbat experiences to some 15,000 Western olim in the metropolis. The real mayor of Tel Aviv has taken notice. The collective community serves as lobbying power within the municipality for improving city life.

Too bad Shultz came to Tel Aviv about the time I left. While I’ve now made my satisfying home in Ariel, my life in Tel Aviv as a Gen-Xer in the mid-2000s felt more like a bad episode of HBO’s disturbing “Girls” than the glamorous “Sex and the City,” just add some post-Zionist existential angst. I struggled to find meaningful employment, friends who got my American-Israeli mentality, and a quality boyfriend. The lack of organized communal life for olim forced me to integrate with Israelis, but it also led to an alienation that contributed to my decision to return to my hometown in Los Angeles for several years.

I joined Shultz in the audience for the panel he should have been on, “Responding to Pew: How Federations are Successfully Engaging the Next Generation” where a cross section of Jewish Federation leaders offered several prescriptions (with some disagreement) on combating the Pew Study’s reported decrease in young American Jews’ affiliation to Judaism. Prescriptions included, predictably, increasing “social justice” programming, investing in Israel experience programs like Taglit-Birthright, turning the focus to core Jewish values (whatever they are).

Shultz likened the panel’s prescriptions to “band-aids on a dying cancer patient.”

“I’m about the Jews coming home and not perpetuating the galut,” the New Jersey native said. “Anyone who perpetuates the galut goes down the path of not sending their kids to a bright Jewish future.”

The panel focused on practical solutions rather than the kind of soul-searching into the meaning of Jewish identity provided by Caroline Glick in her column “Why Bother Being Jewish,” in which she argues that Judaism can’t just be about perpetuation.The inspiring philosophical ideas inherent in the Hebrew Bible that improve our lives and the world are Judaism’s most precious resources, gifts, and magnets.

Without any donor funding, Shultz and his ever-growing team of volunteers have created authentic, largely Jewish community (all 30,000 TLV internationals are invited) rooted in the highest Biblical calling: the creation of a just society in the land of Israel.

Shultz may actually be a threat to Jewish continuity in the US. Those who leave the comforts of Jewish American life to become Israelis need not pronounce themselves as “Jewish.” Their making a life here, in the country that represents goodness in a sea of despots, is the ultimate Jewish tikkun olam.

But you’ll hardly see the word “Jewish” in the corpus of the TLV programming. The musicians, businessmen, authors, and political leaders they host are eternally shaping Jewish life without ever stepping into synagogue or donating to a “Jewish” cause.

Young Jews often move to Israel because they feel a stirring in their soul to live the modern Jewish miracle. But what makes some reluctantly abandon this stirring is the inability to sustain their material needs. Life in Israel is hard—making friends, getting a job, living in a conflict zone, and adjusting to the culture. By the time the new Israeli gives up and goes back, he or she is “unaffiliated” from American Jewish life. But thanks in part to efforts like Shultz’s, the number of Western olim to Tel Aviv has tripled in the last five years.

Jewish Federations should be applauded for supporting humanitarian projects in Israel, but Jewish survival in Israel may now depend on, ironically, making Israel more like the US—a land of opportunity and ethical wealth creation for immigrants—so that Jews find self-fulfillment and financial sustainability in a place where Jewish destiny is measured by the unfolding of the human spirit in the land of Israel, and not the unfolding of more Jewish Federations in the US.

“This place isn’t over,” Shultz said of Israel. “It just started.”

Jay Shultz with Jim Woolsey, former director of the CIA, at a Tel Aviv International Salon event.
Jay Shultz with Jim Woolsey, former director of the CIA, at a Tel Aviv International Salon event.
About the Author
Orit Arfa is a journalist and author of "The Settler," a novel following the journey of a young woman into Tel Aviv nightlife following her eviction from her home in Gaza in 2005. Like her heroine, Orit is a good girl gone better.