U.S. Jews' Relationship With Israel Evolves

President Bush arrives in Israel May 14, 2008, to celebrate its 60th anniversary and push Israeli-Palestinian peace.
By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 11, 2008

Growing up at Congregation Olam Tikvah, Michelle Pearlstein remembers how Israel was taught at religious school: "Black and white -- you can't trust anyone, and it was a united front in support of Israel." Today, Pearlstein, 35, is the Israel specialist at the Fairfax synagogue, where she teaches what is now the mainstream approach: "We call it 'Israel, warts and all.' "

The change in curriculum is but one manifestation of the changing relationship between American Jews and the Jewish state, even as the country celebrates its 60th birthday this week.

Multiple new polls show that younger American Jews feel less of a connection to Israel than older Jews. And while there is heated debate about some of the polls' methodologies and conclusions, most Jewish leaders are very concerned about the data. The leaders see them as a long-term byproduct of intermarriage, assimilation and controversial Israeli policies, including settlement expansion in the occupied territories.

"We were a generation when people were hugging Israel and clinging it to their breast, and now it's sort of a stage of wrestling. They haven't thrown it away -- they're wrestling with it -- but it's qualitatively a different situation for younger people," said Micha Balf, who works with the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington to teach youth about Israel. "You're not starting with a visceral connection; you're starting with something that's unclear."

One obvious question is: What affect would a weakening of the emotional link between Israel and American Jews have on U.S. policy toward the Middle East? Last month, a group of left-leaning Jews established a lobbying group hoping to counter the influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has often lobbied U.S. governments to maintain a tough line toward Israel's adversaries.

For now, the evolving attitudes toward Israel show up starkly in the approach to teaching about the country. Many educators, philanthropists and parents argue that the curriculum should not simplify or romanticize Israel. Instead, instructors should use resources to teach about the country's history, politics, economics, sociology and culture in ways that will keep a generation of younger American Jews connected to the country.

Experts in Jewish education describe replacing mushy classic ballads like "Jerusalem of Gold" from the 1960s with tracks from Israeli rappers who sing about immigration and sexuality, or jettisoning lessons about pioneering kibbutzim and replacing them with ones about Israel's technology wunderkinds.

Pearlstein said much of the teaching material about Israel is outdated. Either it sticks to Biblical Israel and does not go beyond 1948, or it ends at 1967 -- the Six-Day War. "I think that's because recent years have been so negative," she says. Her main goal is to teach students to have a connection with Israel, "to show that Jews have always been in this land, we can see it in the Bible and we can see it today." But you have to do it frankly, she says, by showing "shades of gray, Israel's challenges as well as its achievements."

Educators say the curriculum changes are really about something broader: answering directly why new generations of American Jews should feel connected to this little Middle Eastern country. But for older Jews, such questioning does not resonate. They remember the dramatic founding of the state and see Israel as a key piece of their Jewishness.

Many experts, Jewish leaders and philanthropists say that the waning attachment felt by some younger American Jews has been caused by changes on both sides. Israel has gone from a scrappy pioneer state of Holocaust survivors to a diverse technology and military power, and American Jews have intermarried and become increasingly absorbed into mainstream secular U.S. culture.

Others believe that contemporary Israel -- now a developed, modern state -- will be easier for young U.S. Jews to connect with, and note that philanthropic efforts that have sent more than 100,000 young U.S. Jews since 2000 to visit Israel will sow strong future bonds.

The bonds between many American Jews and Israel are as strong as ever. Indeed, every U.S. synagogue and Jewish institution likely will be celebrating Israel's birthday. Orthodox Jews, who make up about 10 percent of the U.S. Jewish population, tend to have tighter bonds with Israel, ones more closely bound up with theology and Israel's place in the Bible than the more fluid cultural and familial bonds that most American Jews cite.

The change in curriculum has not been easy, educators say. Often parents have not articulated the reasons behind their deep and emotional attachment to Israel, and parents rarely want to deal in public with controversial questions about Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

"Some institutions have even gone to great lengths to avoid articulating a mission statement regarding Israel (and educational goals related to Israel) for fear of stirring up controversy or provoking discord," read a 2003 report by the Gilo Family Foundation.

Lots of debate has taken place about two new studies exploring the weakened connection of younger U.S. Jews to Israel, compared with that of older generations. One, led by a Hebrew Union College sociologist, concludes that a permanent change is underway. The second, published by Brandeis University's Steinhardt Social Research Institute, argues that younger Jews were probably always less attached than their elders. Young Jews today will be hugely influenced, the Steinhardt study says, by the huge new philanthropic efforts to send them to visit Israel.

"My guess is we're seeing a tightening of the core, the core being well-committed but the periphery less so," said Rabbi Aaron Panken, dean of Hebrew Union College, the premiere seminary for Reform Judaism. Panken says the questioning is in a sense, just typically American.

"I think it's sort of the ultimate application of American individualism. Everyone gets to decide what they believe, and just because your parents cared about something doesn't mean you will."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company