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Reconnecting with Israel

A program puts young Jewish Americans in touch with their ancestral land, forging deeper ties and seeking to build future support.

September 16, 2007|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

As the only Jewish kid in his small New Mexico hometown, Ben Rubin says he was "clueless" about Israel.

And he stayed that way. The 26-year-old Los Angeles marketing executive had never been to the Middle East. He was unfamiliar with details of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Because his family immigrated to the United States from Russia in 1916, well before the Holocaust, he felt no personal connection to the land as a safe haven for Jews.

According to a new study, the ties between Israel and young American Jews are weakening as they find unparalleled acceptance and success in mainstream U.S. society, increasingly intermarry, develop an ethnic identity more individual than collective, and form a more nuanced view of Israel than that of older generations.

But for Rubin, that all changed this summer, when he visited Israel as part of a multimillion-dollar program launched by the American Jewish community and the Israeli government to deepen connections with young Jews.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, October 13, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Israel's military: An article in the California section Sept. 16 about young American Jews reconnecting with Israel stated that Israel has the largest military in the Mideast. Although some experts rank Israel's military as the most powerful in the region, it does not have the largest budget or number of personnel.

Rubin said he was transformed by the 10-day visit, during which he saw the Holocaust Museum, the battlefields of Masada and the Golan Heights, the ancient Western Wall and modern nightclubs, the Negev Desert and the Dead Sea. Now he reads the Jerusalem Post online every morning, and he has applied for a job with a Jewish community organization and went to a Rosh Hashana service last week for the first time in a few years.

"Going to Israel really opened my eyes to what the Jewish people have gone through to survive," Rubin said. "It's really made me want to do what I can to support Israel."

The program, called Taglit-birthright israel, is an unparalleled effort among ethnic communities that are working to reconnect young Americans with the lands of their ancestors. Other communities also attempt to forge ties -- the Japanese government sends a dozen or so young Japanese American leaders to Japan each year and Taiwan's government sends about 1,000 Chinese Americans to the island in an annual program dubbed "the love boat."

But the Jewish program dwarfs those numbers. Since its inception in December 1999, the birthright program has sent 150,000 young Jews, most of them from North America, to Israel. Initially funded by Jewish philanthropists Charles Bronfman, Michael Steinhardt and others, the $80-million annual program is now financed by individuals, Jewish community organizations and the Israeli government.

"I don't think there's really any community quite like American Jews in trying so hard to maintain this link," said Don Nakanishi, director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. "In social science literature," Nakanishi said, "there's a straight linear line, with every generation showing greater acculturation and distance from where people came from." Indeed, the decline in attachment to Israel among youths has, for some, stirred fears that the Jewish state's survival could be at stake if American Jews begin to withdraw their financial support and political firepower.

Alienation from Israel is not growing in all quarters, however. Orthodox Jews, for instance, maintain strong ties and constitute a growing segment of the American Jewish community at nearly 10%.

In the broader community, age plays a role in support. According to a study by Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and Ari Y. Kelman of UC Davis, two-thirds of Jews younger than 35 identified themselves as pro-Israel. Forty-eight percent of them said the destruction of Israel would be a personal tragedy and 54% were comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state. In contrast, 78% of those older than 65 said Israel's destruction would be a tragedy and 81% said they were comfortable with a Jewish state.

Younger Jews were less likely than older Jews to express pride, excitement and high emotional attachment toward Israel. They were also less likely to talk about Israel with friends, identify themselves as pro-Israel or Zionists or feel that caring about Israel is an important part of being Jewish.

Cohen said several factors explained the growing disconnect. For older Jews, memories of the Holocaust, the Jewish state's birth and victories over Arab states in 1967 and 1973 cast Israel as a heroic underdog in a treacherous region, he said. But many younger Jews don't remember those events, he said, and instead grew up to see Israel command the Mideast's largest military and engage in sometimes controversial actions in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

In addition, the tight communities once bound together by housing, workplace and educational discrimination have dissipated as many Jews fully integrate into the American mainstream. Other studies have found that younger Jews enjoy positive, individual ethnic identities but have little awareness of or affiliation with communal organizations, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

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