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Last call for US Jews
Op-ed: If young American Jews had rabbi or community to reach out to them, they would be drawn back into Judaism
About a year ago, at the age of 24, after graduating from university, I left Philadelphia where I was born and raised, and immigrated to Israel through the Nefesh B'Nefesh organization. For me it was the natural conclusion of the process of building my Jewish identity as an American Jew who grew up in a traditional, Zionist home. My grandparents are Holocaust survivors and my mother was born in Haifa, I visited the Conservative synagogue on holidays, was educated in a Jewish school and was a member of a Jewish youth movement.

 

But not all US Jews got a similar education. I see that as the main reason for the findings of the Pew Research Center survey, which looked into US Jews' state of mind. The survey's publication raised a lot of interest among my Jewish American friends in the United States, as well as among those who immigrated to Israel some time ago.

 

Jewish identity weakened

The survey's findings are mostly concerning in regards to my age group: Assimilation, no affiliation with a synagogue, adopting Christian customs and a decline in the feeling of belonging to Judaism. Facebook was flooded and buzzing with statuses about the survey, and it appeared that no one in my circle of friends remained indifferent.

 

But I can't say that the survey's results came as a complete surprise to me. Over the past decade I have felt that's where things are going. I saw it in the youth movements and in the summer camps, and I was exposed to it even more in theology seminars for Conservative Judaism during my university studies.

 

Although no one has spoken about it openly, everyone has been feeling the change. The Jewish interest has changed, and young Jews in US have changed. Not all Jews in the US grew up in a kosher-observing or Shabbat-observing home, went to a Jewish school, visited the synagogue on holidays or celebrated their bar mitzvah. With the lack of interaction with Jewish ways of life, it is not surprising that Jewish identity has weakened.

 

Introvert Judaism

While in the past Jewish identity was directly related to belonging to the Jewish community and observing mitzvot, today US Jewry has undergone a process of introversion, from the outside into the soul.

 

As far as young Jews in the US are concerned, being Jewish is an inward thing, and not necessarily outward. Jewish identity is not just the way you express your Jewishness, but the way you feel it. When I meet some of my friends who stayed in the US, I am actually encouraged. They may not go to synagogue often, but they are the most Jewish Jews I know. Their Judaism is defined in the Jewish spirit and soul, not just in religion.

 

An encouraging finding of the survey is that most Jews are proud to be Jewish and have a strong feeling of belonging to the Jewish people. The Orthodox community is strong and united, while young secular Jews in the US are looking for Judaism. If there were only a rabbi, a Jewish friend or a community there to reach out and grab their hand – they would be drawn back in.

 

Wake-up call

The feeling of belonging to the Jewish people stems from five main components: Language, culture, history, religion and country. Young American Jews must be given access to all of these, thereby strengthening their identity and affiliation with the Jewish people. Whoever visits Israel discovers the country, the language, the history and Jewish culture, and whoever meets the emissaries from Israel in universities learns about the religious and the country.

 

But most young Jews in the US are not exposed to all of this. They sit in the synagogue and try to read a text in a language they are unfamiliar with. They listen to the prayers, but they don't connect to them. They have no Jewish infrastructure to grow in, and there are not enough accessible synagogues which can provide them with the content they are looking for.

 

The survey serves as a wake-up call to the Jewish community in the US. It must give those young Jews the option of growing into Judaism and educate them according to its values. It must give them a taste of the mitzvot, of the culture, of the holidays, of the language and of the country – and then encourage them to follow their hearts.

 

Strengthening the Jewish identity as part of the national identity is the way to create unity among the Jewish people even outside the State of Israel.

 

The writer is a new immigrant from the United States who is completing his MA at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) and will soon join the IDF

 

 

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