Spring 2001

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MERCAZ USA Newsletter — Spring 2001

From My Vantage Point

Sometimes we get so used to seeing the half-empty glass that we fail to appreciate and acknowledge when things are actually going well. In recent years, it has been fashionable to bemoan the American Jewish community's lack of interest in, and the apathy about, Israel and Zionism. I, however, would like to examine some interesting recent experiences that give a more reassuring picture.

As you probably know, there has been a great deal of discussion about federations lessening their interest and involvement with Israel in order to increase

concentration on local concerns. Much of this change in perspective stemmed from the fact that Israel has been doing very well over the past decade both economically and socially and appeared coming close to achieving a final peace settlement with the Palestinians, and thus did not require the same level of attention as in the past. The question many of us asked, therefore, was whether American Jewry could re-energize itself from its slumber vis-à-vis Israel if a crisis broke out.

I am happy to report that from my perspective, the answer is a resounding "yes". In November at the United Jewish Communities' General Assembly, held in Chicago, more than 4500 delegates attended from all over North America, far above expected estimates. As a matter of fact, the registration had to be closed since there was no more room at the hotel. The reason for this increase in attendance was not because of local community concerns but because of the crisis of renewed violence in Israel and the breakdown of the Peace Process. It has always been thus! Whenever Israel has been in trouble, American Jews have awakened to voice their support for Israel and its security. It is obvious that American Jews still look to Israel as very important to our Jewish identity and the continuity of the Jewish People. I must add that this was my first "G.A." and I was delighted to attend this impressive gathering along with other national leaders of the Conservative Movement.

Another area of reassurance for me was to be found in the recently completed report of the Jewish Theological Seminary's Ratner Center for the Study of Conservative Judaism, headed by Dr. Jack Wertheimer, entitled "Four Up - The High School Years - 1995-1999." This report examined 1,300 high school students about religious and ethnic identity at the time of their Bat or Bar Mitzvah and then again 4 years later. These students revealed a strong allegiance to Israel. In 1995, 56% of those surveyed called Israel "very important", 41% said it was "somewhat important" and only 3% said it was "not very important". Four years later, and contrary to our expectations about teenagers, not much change had occurred! 52% now said Israel was "very important", 39% "somewhat important" and 8% "not very important." As Dr. Wertheimer noted, "the surprise there is the drop-off in identification with Israel and Jewish peoplehood that we see in adults has not affected these young people."

One more example of renewed American interest in Israel has been taking place almost daily since September: the phenomenon of solidarity missions to Israel. In the last newsletter, I described my participation in the solidarity mission of the Conference of Presidents and the United Jewish Communities. Since then, countless others have taken place, including the mid-November Conservative Movement Leadership Mission and the January United Synagogue Regional Presidents trip. I am proud to report that MERCAZ USA and MERCAZ OLAMI secured funding from the World Zionist Organization to subsidize the USCJ trip. Additionally, we should note that the "Birthright" trips have continued to go over to Israel with full groups. Our new shlicha Karni Goldshmid-Lahav was one of the leaders of the KOACH Birthright contingent.

All of these encouraging signs make us realize that what we sometimes consider a lack of interest may just be a temporary concentration on other areas of life. The feelings for Israel, I would contend, are still there, waiting to be reawakened when needed.



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