Young Jews Need Their Spinach

The first sentence of pollster Frank Luntz’s new study, “Israel in the Age of Eminem,” correctly identifies the crisis the community is now facing: “A large majority of younger Jews seem to know little about Israel, almost nothing about their religion, and show little interest in either.” Unfortunately, the study doesn’t address that crisis, and the community is failing to do so on the scale required as well.

If you are old enough to remember Popeye and the secret to his strength, then you are probably a member of the generation that is deeply attached to Israel, whose formative years were during the Holocaust, Israel’s War of Independence, and the Six-Day War.

Young Jews did not begin to distance themselves from Israel in the X, Y or Z generation, it actually started at least 20 years ago, and perhaps as long as 40. These younger Jews have not experienced Jews in peril. The last time Israel was in any real danger was in 1973. That means a college student at that time would now be approaching middle age.

Think about a college student today. A 21-year-old was only 9 when we last fought in the Gulf. They don’t remember that war, let alone anything that came before. Our grandparents worry about remembering the Holocaust, but now Vietnam is ancient history.

Sadly, Israel is like spinach to many young Jews. That’s the real difference from the earlier generations, which saw Israel as meat and potatoes. This identity was ingrained through family, synagogue, and Jewish education. Today, all three pillars are tottering.

Young Jews say they don’t want to be lectured to by parents, rabbis, or teachers; well, which generation did? Before they weren’t asked their opinion. Today we do focus groups and surveys to find out what they want.

The older generation also had a sense of right and wrong. They could distinguish between real faults in Israel and specious moral equations, such as the one in a recent cartoon that compared settlers to suicide bombers. Students, especially self-described liberals, want to look at the issues in a Tevye-like fashion — on the one hand Palestinians do bad things, but, on the other, so do the Israelis — even if the facts are not symmetrical.

Many advocates want to offer young Jews an alternative to spinach. Some argue we should adopt the least common denominator approach out of fear that being too pro-Israel will offend them. This confuses “free thinking” with critical thinking, and it is the latter that should be developed.

The notion that students shouldn’t be forced to learn isn’t a new idea. It’s essentially what happened in the 1960s when students rebelled against the core curriculum and colleges responded by gutting requirements. After decades of producing graduates who were ignorant of what had previously been viewed as fundamental knowledge, the academy reinstituted much of the classic curriculum. The same needs to be done in Jewish education.

Jews are not being taught the aleph-bet of Israel’s political history, so it is not surprising that they are alienated by the time they get to college and feel unprepared to respond to Israel’s detractors. Jewish leaders are so focused on the highly visible anti-Israel activities that they are largely ignoring the less obvious, but more pernicious problem of Jewish ignorance.

To the extent there has been a response so far, it has largely been in the area of public relations, but you can’t sell Jewish identity the way you sell soap. The problem is not the wording of ads produced by Jewish organizations or the phraseology used in discussing the issues, it is the often total absence of any grounding in Jewish history.

I fear that we have lost most of the generation that is now in college and that is in the young leadership cohort. This does not mean we should give up on them. Last year I laid out a 16-point program that addresses this audience. Creative ways to engage this population should be pursued, and are being developed by the organizations in the Israel on Campus Coalition, but these are not substitutes for the core of knowledge that must be transmitted. Engagement is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for educating young Jews.

The Popeye generation knows that spinach makes us strong. It is not surprising that it would be difficult to get 18-29 year-olds to first develop a taste for spinach. The answer to the crisis is not to offer that group ice cream as an alternative, it is to devote greater resources to educating younger Jews whose tastes are not already ingrained.

A few such efforts are underway. The American Jewish Committee, for example, launched its IKAR project to educate day school students, George Hanus created the ZAP program in Chicago, which is bringing Jewish students together from all over the city to learn about their roots, and Gary Rosenblatt launched the innovative Write On for Israel program for student journalists in New York.

These types of programs are very important, but the real key is to make sure that teaching Israeli history and, ideally, advocacy, become commonplace in the classroom. Parents shouldn’t assume because they’re paying five-figure tuitions for day school their children are getting this type of education; most are not.

If we don’t start to educate our children immediately, all those dire predictions about the future of American Jewry will be self-fulfilling prophesies. It is not too late. Who knows, if we do our jobs well, by the time our kids reach college they may actually like spinach, or, better yet, begin to feel like Israel is their meat and potatoes.