Joshua Blatman was in Tel Aviv walking down a busy street. It was the summer of 2006, and this was Joshua's first trip to Israel, with Taglit birthright Israel. Since its inception in 2000, Joshua and more than 200,000 young Jewish adults have taken advantage of the free-ten day trip funded by major Jewish philanthropists and a number of Jewish community partners.
On this particular day, Joshua’s group was going to the mall. As the group of Americans crossed the street together, Joshua noticed the looks of Israeli passers-by and could not help feeling like a tourist. Joshua decided then that he was coming back to Israel to immerse himself in Israeli and Jewish culture. His birthright Israel experience inadvertently motivated him to go beyond the tourist experience; he wanted to be in Israel and “know what he was doing.” A year later, in 2007, he did. He went on Project Otzma, a ten-month long volunteer and educational Israel experience program for college-age Jewish adults.
Joshua Blatman is just one of more than 1000 young people in the Greater Cincinnati area who have used local grant money awarded by The Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati to travel to Israel. Since 2000, the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati has awarded $5.1 million in grants to Jewish teens and young adults from more than 30 high schools and representing a wide range of denominations.
Joshua Blatman and five other young people from the Cincinnati area—Justin Kirschner, Jared Goldfarb, Jodi Brinn, Abby Bortz, and Deb Karmel—got together one Sunday afternoon and discussed their Israel experiences. This included not only their journeys to Israel, but equally as important, what happened when they got home and attempted to translate those experiences into their American Jewish lives. Each of their stories is unique, but together they reveal the diverse ways in which the Israel Experience is shaping the Jewish identities of young Jewish people today.
Since the mid-1990s, a significant body of research and articles had indicated that engagement of young adults in Jewish life and their attachment to Israel was in decline. Organized Israel programs—The Israel Experience—have been the prescription for this ailment, with Jewish communities and the Israeli government spending increasing amounts of money to send young people there for immersive experiences that aim to establish a viable connection between young people and Israel and help them form strong Jewish identities.
Project Otzma, the program in Israel that Joshua Blatman experienced, is currently undertaking a new study of its alumni that will be completed by late 2009. According to Tali Ruderman, Otzma's North American director, with more than fifty percent participation (800 alumni out of 1400), Otzma's new study indicates that in the first two years after returning to the United States, seventy percent of alumni are working in the organized Jewish community in a professional or volunteer capacity; but after two years that percentage drops to about thirty percent. According to Connie Hinitz, director of the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati, follow-up surveys of its grantees have yielded similar results.
But given the results of the 2008 Cincinnati Jewish Community Study, one can only conclude that the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati's and the Cincinnati Jewish community's investment in Israel programs for young adults is clearly having a positive impact. The new demographic community study revealed that 42% of respondents under the age of 40 feel “very emotionally connected” to Israel. In the face of a mountain of studies showing the decline of American Jews and their attachment to Israel, especially those in the 18-35 age range, this statistic stands out. Could Cincinnati be considered a trailblazer in what it offers for young adults interested in connecting with Israel?
Cincinnati's success is certainly no surprise to 23-year-old Deb Karmel, who has been to Israel 11 times. “I believe that,” Deb said, when she heard about the Jewish community study. “They provide so much more opportunity,” Deb said of the Cincinnati Jewish community. “Friends of mine, their Federations can give, maybe five hundred dollars?” Deb has used up all the money that the Jewish community of Cincinnati offers for young adults to go to Israel and is still hoping to go back to Israel soon.
Jodi Brinn and Deb made some quick calculations and realized that between the two of them, the community has invested approximately $11,000, and no obligations were placed upon them. “It's doing very little,” Deb said, “for a community that has done so much for us.” Nonetheless, both Jodi and Deb have made choices that belie the lack of expectation and opportunities for engagement. Jodi is engaged to a rabbinical student and went back to Israel this summer, and Deb is a Jewish Studies major at the University of Cincinnati and works for an after school program at the Jewish Community Center.
For all of the power that these trips pack, the return to life in the United States is often anti-climactic. Attempts by participants to maintain their involvement with Jewish life at home are often frustrating due to a lack of viable options for engagement.
But for the six young people I spoke with, the conversation shifted from concerns about opportunities for engagement to how these programs help them find their Jewish selves, or not. All six admitted that when they came back, they felt “fired-up” about Israel and being Jewish. When asked how they kept that fire going, Abby Bortz spoke up first.
Abby went on the Jewish Federation’s Partnership 2000: Jewish Experience in Israel/Poland in the summer of 2007 and she credits the trip with fostering her to become more religious and involved with her synagogue, Valley Temple, where she is a madricha. “I felt so connected to my Judaism in Israel,” Bortz said, “I wanted to keep that connection.” In Israel, Bortz celebrated Shabbat, and there was Hebrew all around her; she said she felt “more Jewish” and “more religious.” (Bortz is now spending a year in Israel on Young Judea’s year course, funded by the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati)
Joshua responded to Abby's matter-of-fact certainty in a way one might characterize as 'very Jewish'--with a question. “What if,” he asked the group, “everyone is the same amount Jewish, they just need to prove it to themselves in different ways? Like wearing a yarmulke. Why do you need these different exterior symbols to remind yourself that you're Jewish if you know you're Jewish?”
Abby remained matter of fact: “I don't [need exterior symbols] but I'm proud of it...I like letting other people know I'm Jewish.” Justin Kirschner, 17, agreed. He went on the same trip as Abby a year later, in the summer of 2008. When he came back, he contacted the Jewish Federation to find out what he could do to keep the fire of his Israel inspiration going. He temporarily joined the Partnership 2000 committee to help plan a reunion event between Israeli youth from Netanya and their counterparts here in Cincinnati; he also co-wrote an article about his Israel experience which is posted on www.jewishcinnati.org (see http://www.jewishcincinnati.org/page.aspx?id=193850). Even as the subject of lacking opportunities arose in the discussion, the actions of each of these Cincinnatians indicate otherwise.
Still, though Justin calls the trip “magnificent” he also admits he has a hard time translating his experience into his life back in America. Jared Goldfarb, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish household and has recently become Orthodox, would tell you that's because the Israel experience, while inspiring, cannot sustain a Jewish identity in the way that a relationship with the divine can. Regardless of anyone's level of Jewish engagement upon their return, Jared questions the sacrosanct place that the Israel experience has attained in the Jewish community as the answer to solving the Jewish identity crisis of young American Jews.
Jared, 22, went on a five-week long Young Judaea trip in the summer of 2003 and he also went on the March of the Living in May 2005, in his senior year of high school (both supported by grants from the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati and the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati). He has become frum, Orthodox, but he does not attribute that transformation to his experiences in Israel. Jared says that after the March of the Living, he was “on fire,” and a somewhat mystical experience getting lost in, where else, Tsfat, lit that spark.
Jared got separated from his group during the March of the Living trip when they were in Tsfat. He was walking around, alone and lost, and came upon a black-hatted, heavily-bearded stranger who helped him find his group. Just a few days later, he came across the same man at the Kotel in Jerusalem, on his group's last day in Israel. He could not believe this was a coincidence. “I was so inspired, I was visibly shaking,” Jared said of the unusual double encounter. The man was a rabbi, and urged Jared to turn his inspiration into action. “He said to me, 'In order for this to be real—inspiration isn't real unless it ties down into action. You have to do something. What are you going to do differently?'” So Jared decided then and there that he would put on tefillin every day.
The inspiration that drove his resolve to put on tefillin every day lasted only three weeks. Reflecting on where it all went, Jared says, “I came back into the world, no one else went through an experience like that in my class. I had nothing to continuously inspire, and at a certain point, the memory fades a little bit, that feeling of inspiration, and unless that's being reignited momentarily, every single moment, it fades into oblivion. It was three weeks of inspiration, and following that it was a nice memory.” For Jared, a relationship to Israel does not equal a Jewish identity.
Deb Karmel says she can't stop thinking about Israel, and despite the fact that, at the time of our Sunday afternoon conversation, her last trip there had been a year before, her Jewish fire is still burning. Justin knows he will go back to Israel, maybe to study abroad while he is in college, or maybe after college on a program like Otzma. He believes that the Jewish Experience in Israel/Poland trip that he did in 2008 has made him more aware of his Jewish identity, even if he is not sure yet what that means or how to express it. Jodi tends to shy away from organized, group-oriented Israel programs, and will be going back this summer to do an internship. Her time in Israel revolved around work, speaking Hebrew, and interacting with Israelis. Upon her return, Jodi reflects, “I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do to be Jewish.” Speaking Hebrew reminded Jodi every day that she was Jewish while she was in Israel; when she came home she was looking for Israelis to speak Hebrew with, more than she was looking for God. In Israel Jodi was able to find her Jewish self even in a secular Jewish framework; Judaism was in the air she was breathing.
Given the vast differences in how Israel programs impact young Jews individually, and the variation in the level and intensity of involvement among just these six young people, how does one assess the real impact of Israel programs? It seems that Cincinnati is ahead of the pack as far as helping the youth to build their own personal relationship with Israel, but what is next? Perhaps the role of the entire Jewish community is to offer multiple entry points and opportunities for people like Deb, Justin, Jodi, Jared, Abby and Joshua to continue asking themselves questions about their Jewish identities and their connection to Israel.