A sense of urgency permeated the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in the capital this week as experts in the field discussed how to bring more foreign students here, and why birthright-israel is only part of the picture.
Professionals from the Student Forum – a joint project of the WZO Hagshama Department and the Jewish Agency’s Education Committee – representing a number of programs for university students in Israel, and others gathered at the daylong convention on “Jewish Youth and Israel: Understanding the Changing Needs of Jewish Youth and Intensifying Israel’s Place in Their Lives.”
“We realized that we don’t have time to sit back and think about our work, how influential we’ve been,” said Roi Abecassis, director of the Student Forum and executive director of the World Zionist Organization’s Hagshama Department, which works with young Jewish adults. “It’s been driving us crazy, how to get youth to come to Israel. We’ve succeeded with birthright, and we’re succeeding with MASA, but we have to take the next step and get them to stay here. We have to think about how we can update ourselves to become a product that’s attractive for Jewish youth outside of Israel.”
Though the precise nature of that product – what Israelis, Israeli society and the Land of Israel need to become for more Jewish youth in the Diaspora to visit Israel – was the subject of some debate, each speaker seemed to agree that the time for change was imminent.
Gadi Taub, a professor of public policy at the Hebrew University, began by warning: “What I’m about to say won’t be pleasant. When North American Jewish students leave university, not only are they not identifying with Israel, but they’re becoming anti-Israel.”
“Democracy is a religion in America, and if we don’t learn how to articulate, explain and justify why Judaism and democracy isn’t an internal contradiction, we’ll not only lose them; we’ll turn them into our enemies,” Taub said.
“It’s an extremely urgent situation,” said Gael Grunewald, co-head of the Student Forum and head of the Hagshama Department. “The Jewish university student has to deal with pro-Palestinian groups on one side and the international media on the other. We need to come in and reinforce his connection to Israel. We have to do more than what we’ve been doing, and we have to do it better.”
A number of speakers reported their findings after extensive tours of college campuses abroad, including Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and the former international director of Hillel, Avraham Infeld.
“The most important goal in trying to bring Jewish youth to Israel is to redefine what it means to be Jewish for them,” said Infeld. “The greatest success of birthright is when the participants realize that being Jewish is not necessarily tied to a religious experience. That’s not necessarily the way it works [in Israel].”
But nobody underestimated the struggle that lies ahead.
“The lives of Jews outside of Israel have never been better than they are today,” said Amos Hermon, chairman of the Jewish Agency’s Education Committee and co-head of the Student Forum. “But Israel is able to offer personal and intellectual development to students more than any other country in the world. And yet it’s in 13th place on the list of countries in which Jewish students go to university.”
Several speakers also addressed the shifting tendencies and characteristics of Jewish youth today, stressing the importance of utilizing new technologies, including YouTube and Facebook. But many of the problems that face the Student Forum in its quest to bring Jewish youth to Israel remain.
“The challenges are much stronger than the solutions,” said David Keren, director of United Synagogue Youth programming in Israel. “Even though the ideas brought up in the convention today are foundation stones, it’s an important brainstorming step in getting students to Israel. A good conference is one that challenges its audience to find solutions instead of handing them out.”
Infeld tried to sum up the challenge as he concluded his remarks.
“We’ve been bringing students to Israel to get them to like Israel,” he said. “We’ve forgotten that we need to bring them here to get them to love Israel.”