Barry Shrage

The Essential Bond: Jewish Identity and Israel

Some might imagine faith to mean an inner transformation; a leap into God. Judaism, however, does not begin with a leap of faith, nor even with a leap of commitment to mitzvah. Rather than with a spiritual transformation of personal identity, Judaism commences with a leap of solidarity, an unmediated empathy with our history. Judaism begins with an identification with a singular community that has a history. It is to say, “I am prepared to go into Egypt and suffer with this people.”

What does this have to do with religion? If religion is doctrine, Judaism is not a religion. Jews, without knowing precisely how to define themselves, are a people saying, “For some reason, I cannot be other than with this mishpacha (family.) — Rabbi David Hartman

“It is sadly true that one of the most pernicious results of prejudice is when members of a persecuted group accept the ugly stereotypes used to characterize them. As Anthony Julius has observed, “contempt for Jews, when sufficiently widespread, can foster self-contempt among Jews.” It can convince Jews that unfounded, inaccurate accusations leveled against them or, by extension, against the Jewish state, are true.” — Deborah Lipstadt, Antisemitism: Here and Now, on the “contempt” for Jewish identity.

The Challenge of Jewish Identity and Our Relationship with Israel

The identity of American Jews for most of the 20th century was rooted in ethnicity, love of the Jewish people, fear of anti-Semitism, horror and guilt over the Holocaust, a commitment to the rescue and resettlement of Soviet Jewry, and love of and concern for the State of Israel. But assimilation inevitably erodes ethnic identification. In the absence of a deep connection to the Jewish people, religious faith and/or a culture of Jewish learning, some predict complete assimilation in the third or fourth generation of freedom and safety. And there has never been a more powerful assimilating culture than America in the 21st century.

But perhaps identity for most Jews – including a connection to learning, religion, spirituality, culture or philosophy – begins with a connection to the Jewish people. Love of the Jewish people cannot be taught. But it can be experienced. An immersive experience in Israel, as it turns out, is the key to building identification with and love of the Jewish people. Without these, Judaism has little meaning, and creating Jewish identity is nearly impossible.

This is not of course to say that Jewish education, an experience of faith, a connection to Jewish values, a sense of Jewish community, a relationship to a synagogue, rabbi, or teacher is unimportant. To the contrary. Advocacy and support for Jewish education and learning, has been at the heart of my work and my highest priority throughout my 50-year career serving the Jewish community. They are essential to transform the feeling of love for our people into a life of Jewish meaning rooted in all the beauty of our tradition and learning. It is to acknowledge, however, that ignoring ethnicity, peoplehood, particularity, and love for the Jewish people is to ignore the engine, the starting point, the emotional trigger for deeply rooted Jewish engagement. A firsthand Israel experience has proven to be our most powerful and because of Birhright, widely available “emotional trigger.”

The Jewish identity of our children and grandchildren is deeply dependent on our sense of connection and love for our Jewish people and our connection and love is deeply tied to our relationship to Israel. Many in the American Jewish community and in Israel are, however, concerned that there is increasing distance between the American Jewish community and our brothers and sisters, our family, in Israel and that it will inevitably become worse. While I believe that these fears are exaggerated strengthening our relationship with Israel remains a matter of utmost importance for those of us who care about Jewish flourishing in America and in Israel.

Birthright and other immersive Israel programs provide a powerful, measurable experience of peoplehood and love of the Jewish people – on a massive scale – for hundreds of thousands of young adults while achieving particularly impressive results with the children of intermarriage.

Birthright opened a window of opportunity, a hinge in our history, enabling us to open the door to more meaningful and durable engagement with our people, our nation, our culture, our faith and our unique destiny. This is our very best chance to affect the next generation of Jews.

The current Coronavirus pandemic only magnifies the importance of these trips – absent face-to-face contact with Israelis and immersive travel and cultural experiences – we could lose that sense of identity created by Birthright trips for tens of thousands of would-be participants.

The pandemic has all but ended physical contact between our people. For now, we must work to foster new and creative digital relationships to grow bonds between our two countries and our people. This is only a bandage on the problem. It is far more important to safely restore travel to Israel.

Love, Empathy and the Ties that Bind us Together

Our relationship with each other as Jews, our care for Israel, and our love for the Jewish people are tied together and dependent on each other. Looking at support for Israel among American Jews and considering some inevitable generational decline, there remains a strong core of support among all ages of Jews for Israel and its people. Part of this support is emotional, an undefinable feeling that binds Jews together. This “tribal” or “family” feeling may be missed by some studies and surveys, and it’s sometimes seems to be out of fashion, but it’s there for most Jews and for those who identify with the Jewish community including interfaith families and their children.

It is not possible to predict with any accuracy the future of our relationship with Israel or our future as an American Jewish community without understanding the intangible but powerful feeling of Jewish cohesion and shared story. This feeling is strengthened through experiences that bring American Jews and Israelis together. Ultimately, it is this feeling, this underlying love, augmented by a significant increase in personal encounters (mifgashim) that must bind us together transcending whatever political disagreements of the moment might divide us.

This difficult to describe emotional reaction can be seen on the faces of Birthright participants when they meet the IDF soldiers on their buses. There’s hardly a trace of the anti-military feeling you might expect if you listen to the way the media describes the next generation of American Jews. On the contrary, young American Jews have real respect, bordering on awe, for the young Israelis who are willing to make real sacrifices for their country and their people. On their part, the soldiers feel it powerfully as well. The mifgash with young American Jews helps them understand the importance of the Diaspora and strong Jewish identity outside Israel to the survival of the Jewish people. The interactions are honest and open. Contrary to conventional wisdom the conversation with the soldiers on Birthright buses is frank and open and the soldiers’ views are anything but simple reflections of government policy.

The Forces that Seek to Drive Us Apart

I believe that love of Israel, love of the Jewish people, and Jewish identity are mutually reinforcing and interdependent. Similarly, the defamation of Israel can be transformed into an attack on Jewish identity as Jewish students are pressured to abandon support for Israel, no matter how balanced and nuanced. The intersectional movement, in its more malignant form on many campuses, insists that young Jews abandon their “narrow,” “tribal” particularity, their love for their particular people as a ticket of admission to progressive circles on campus.

The attack on tribal particularity is of course restricted to Jewish particularity. All others demand respect for their identities and “safe spaces,” protection from any conflict, criticism, ideas or conversations that might prove upsetting. There are, however, no such demands for “safe spaces” for Jews free of attacks on Israel, on Jewish history, heritage or identity.

And, of course, the intersectional attack on Israel and Jewish identity is rooted in false dichotomies.. We can be and are deeply committed to justice, equality, and compassion for the stranger and the oppressed and at the same time remain deeply attached and supportive of our people, their survival, their security and their thriving (the right of every other ethnic and cultural group on campus!)

It is also possible, as it always has been, to be nuanced in our views toward Israel –at times critical while remaining proud and deeply committed to its tremendous accomplishments among the nations of the world in a very dangerous neighborhood.

Since an Israel experience is increasingly crucial to the development of a connection to the Jewish people, which is central to Jewish identity, the intersectional war on Israel is also a war on Jewish identity. On one side are the forces that demonize Israel and force students to choose between acceptance in progressive circles or any commitment to Israel no matter how nuanced and critical. On the other side is Birthright and other immersive programs and experiences that turn Israel and Israelis from caricatures to living breathing realities who we can care about and understand even when we disagree.

A Leap of Empathy: The Power of Relationship to Overcome Distance, Restore Connection, and Foster Commitment and Love

Recently, reflecting on political polarization in Israel and the United States,. it has been noted that young Israelis are moving decisively to the right while many young Americans are moving just as forcefully to the left. It’s been suggested that this is yet another sign of the inevitable “divorce.” But even families with vast and deep political differences can still empathize with each other’s life experiences and maintain ties of affection and even love.

American Jews who have serious questions about Israeli defense policy or can’t understand why Israelis vote the way they do need to know Israelis well enough to understand how different their life experiences were and how different their “neighborhood” is. They need to know through personal face to face relationships that as five-year-olds, their Israeli cousins endured terrifying bus rides to school as buses and stores and restaurants were blowing up around them. Their perception of vulnerability has been shaped by forces that are very different there than they are here in the relative safety of the United States.

Similarly, some Israelis who reproach their American cousins for not making support for Israel their highest electoral priority need to understand, again through face to face relationships, that many American Jews love Israel deeply but also fear for their democracy, their security, and their most treasured American and Jewish values.

Israeli discomfort, and occasionally, disdain for American Jewish religious practices disappears for Israelis who spend time visiting our communities and our synagogues.   Similarly, American Jews’ questions about some of Israel’s security decisions are mitigated talking to Israeli soldiers on their Birthright buses or being hosted by Israeli families who share anxiety about their children serving in the IDF. American and Israeli families participating in community to community partnerships should be an important component of this important work.

I would suggest that the anger that surrounds the issues that divide us are mitigated when Israelis and American Jews at the grassroots actually get to know each other, their hopes, their fears, their beliefs, and their real struggles.   While ideologues on all sides stress the controversy, the real love that most of us have for each other remains strong. This is clear in the actual encounters, the mifgashim, that we have with each other.

So it’s true that we live in very different cultures, different worlds, but what are we as human beings if we lose our ability to empathize with our own people with whom we share so much history, so much suffering, but more importantly so much pride, so much beauty and so much intellectual and cultural creativity.

Rabbi David Hartman, writing in the name of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, reminds us that our love affair with Judaism doesn’t start with a “leap of faith” or a moment of spiritual passion but rather with a “leap of empathy” for our people.

There is no hope of increasing connection if we don’t understand each other: our similarities and differences, our hopes and fears, our dreams and nightmares. Our best hope is therefore the creation and expansion of programs that create relationships that are deep and strong enough to create real empathy between our two communities and overcome the cultural and political differences that are very real but that can certainly be overcome.

Build on Strengths Not Weaknesses

We have many strengths to build on, primary among them Birthright, Onward Israel, MASA, and other immersive programs that strengthen our connection to Israel and our connection to and love for the Jewish people. Birthright alone brought 35,000-40,000 North American Jews to Israel each year, and the impact on their identity and especially their attachment to Israel is clear, significant and measurable.    Controlled research conducted for the past 20 years on the program shows that the impact on participants lasts long after they return home. They are increasingly likely to marry other Jews, create Jewish families, and be far more connected to Israel than they were before their trip.

Clearly, Birthright follow up and second trips to Israel including MASA, Onward and many others will only further strengthen our relationship.  Also essential is the expansion of follow-up programs for college and post college young adults in the United States.   Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Boston’s Jewish federation,, working with Hillel on 28 campuses around the country, created IACT (Inspired, Active, Committed, Transformed), a comprehensive follow-up program specifically designed for Birthright returnees. International Hillel has now taken responsibility for IACT and will make follow-up an expanded and integrated part of all its campus work. These efforts can and must be expanded and coordinated to avoid squandering the incredible gift that Birthright, MASA, Onward Israel and the others have handed our communities.

Indeed, with 700,000 plus Birthright alumni worldwide, it’s impossible to imagine a strategy to reduce “distancing” without using the enormous resource represented by these young adults, a substantial majority of whom have a strongly positive view of Israel, its people, and the IDF soldiers who became their friends.

On the other side, we have many opportunities to strengthen programs that help Israelis understand American Jewry. The Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies at the University of Haifa and the ongoing work of the Israeli American Council (IAC) are examples of working programs that are effective and that could be expanded.

Similarly, recent calls for a “reverse birthright” sometimes ignore the social capital that we already have accumulated. Over 100,000 Israeli soldiers have already participated in Birthright traveling with groups on buses, and they along with countless shlichim and shinshinim, and campus ambassadors, Israeli businesspeople and academics are already the Israeli end of the living bridge that can connect us. In addition, the IAC is expanding and deepening the connections between  their communities and the American Jewish communities of which they are part. Many of these Israelis have large numbers of connections and contacts in the United States and might be mobilized using visits and social media  to strengthen our relationship, a relationship that we believe is essential for the creative and secure future of both communities.

We Can’t Live and Flourish Without Each Other

If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to sinat chinam (baseless hatred) then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with ahavat chinam (unconditional love)”— Rav Abraham Isaac Kook

We are a small vulnerable people. Fifteen million in a world population of nearly 8 billion. Six million of our people were murdered only 80 years ago in a genocidal war with all doors closed to our people and nowhere to run.

We need each other. We don’t have to agree on everything, but our vulnerability multiplies if our sense of mutual responsibility, the bonds of love that tie us together are allowed to disintegrate. Ignoring the American Jewish community as a key strategic asset for Israel today and more so in the future borders on insanity. Imagining that our identity, our sense of Jewish community, our Judaism can flourish in the absence of the bonds of love that have always been the essence of Judaism ignores the reality of our historical experience. Imagining that strengthening our connection to our people will be possible without a strong connection to our brother and sisters in Israel is self-deception.

We need each other. While the signs of disintegration are present, so too we must also recognize that the harbingers of renewal are all around us. The opportunities for action are also before our eyes. They are not in heaven or across the seas; they are in our hands. The resources and organizational capacity are already available. And, of course, the unimaginable dream becomes realty if capable powerful and persistent people decide that it will happen.

Twenty years, ago no one could have imagined that we would have brought 700,000 plus young Jews to Israel by 2020.

We have a great deal of work to do. We will be praised by future generations for our efforts if we succeed but we will not be forgiven if we lose this opportunity and fail.

For my part, after 50 years serving the Jewish community, I remain an optimist with unshakable faith in the Jewish future and the next generations ability to make a leap of empathy.

About the Author
Barry Shrage served as President of CJP- Greater Boston’s Jewish Federation from 1987 to 2017. He is now Professor of the Practice in the Hornstein Program and the Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. Throughout his 50 year career Barry focused on strengthening Jewish identity and engaging future generations through Jewish education, deepening connections between American Jews and Israel and her people and developing strong communities that care for the most vulnerable in society. All views expressed are Barry’s own and not necessarily those of Brandeis University or CJP