JERUSALEM — More than 100 Israeli leaders gathered with Jewish-American counterparts in Jerusalem last month with a daunting mission: to save Jewish life in North America.
Jewish American leaders have known for years that assimilation and intermarriage were slowly shrinking their communities, but the early November gathering took on an extra sense of urgency. Just weeks earlier, a landmark study had found that young American Jews are growing increasingly estranged from Judaism.
As these efforts press ahead, they are being complicated by a new question: What role can Israel play in Jewish American life at a time when many American Jews, who tend to be socially liberal, have misgivings about some of Israel’s policies?
There is a broad consensus that Israel will be an important player in solving the problems of American Jewry. Yet experts say that it cannot ignore the alienation that many Americans feel over perceived religious intolerance, Israel’s construction of West Bank settlements and the continued control over millions of Palestinians.
“An Israel which doesn’t address these issues is an Israel which in the long run endangers the relationship with world Jewry,” said Donniel Hartman, who leads an initiative called iEngage, which encourages dialogue about perceptions of Israel with American Jews and which sent representatives to November’s gathering. He said Jews who don’t believe Israel shares their liberal values may disconnect from it.
Israel’s newfound influence in the debate on American Jewry represents something of a role reversal. U.S. Jews have traditionally been a lifeline, raising hundreds of millions of dollars and lobbying American governments on behalf of the Jewish state. Today, Israel is a thriving, affluent and modern country, albeit with some unique problems.
During November’s meetings, participants spent two days brainstorming on ways to bring young unaffiliated Jews back to their roots.
The meeting, organized by the Israeli prime minister’s office, was part of a campaign to strengthen Jewish identity among young Jews and solidify their connection to Israel. Some 120 representatives from Jewish organizations around the world, mostly from North America, and a number of Israeli government ministries pledged to formulate a plan by next year to address assimilation.
The Jewish Agency, which also convened the meeting, is a nonprofit group that works closely with the government and acts to link Jews around the world.