I ALMOST entered the communal black hole. For a time, wandering with other disengaged Jewish youth, I lacked an anchor to the community. And for a time, it was tempting to jump in and be taken away.
I had been through a Jewish school and I learnt about the land of milk and honey. I went through a youth movement and I’d been to Israel and seen its many wonders and its many dysfunctions, coming out truly in love.
I led programs on youth movement camps and was an Australasian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS) activist on university campuses, but then the time came to call myself too old.
The black hole was attractive. I have many friends there, people I’ve been through school, youth movements and AUJS with. More than three-quarters of those I once shared a deep bond with in our communal lives have since gone back into their shells, leaving behind any formal connection they once had to the establishment community.
And who can blame them? I would guess there are two main reasons for wandering into the surprisingly comfortable abyss. First, we’re tired. After 10 years of Jewish day school and another few years of youth movement or AUJS life, my peers are “Jew-ed out”, a now well-documented phenomenon. The second, more worrisome, factor is disengagement through a lack of options.
By that I mean that most of my friends, myself included, could not find a natural home in an existing communal structure; the black hole was simply a substitute to viable Jewish engagement if only because there were no alternatives.
Most of my friends are politically liberal and either secular or cultural Jews, with strong links to Israel and their Judaism. We struggled to find a place within current community organisations to express those views.
We all have a deep connection to Israel, have studied and visited there, have many friends there, and we believe we share its destiny; a blow dealt to Israel is a blow dealt to ourselves.
After 10 years of Jewish
day school and another
few years of youth
movement or AUJS life,
my peers are “Jew-ed
We are oriented by the Jewish and global values of social justice and human rights – we see Israel as a beacon of light in what is a dark and dangerous sea of equal parts despots and uncertainty.
We are also concerned about Israel’s future, because it is only so long that Israel can retain a positive image in a world where Palestinian self-determination is postponed and the occupation of the Palestinian territories continued.
Until recently there was no Jewish organisation in Australia where I have been able to feel comfortable acting on my values with others in the same headspace. I’m therefore very glad that I’ve been able to join in the formation of the New Israel Fund (NIF) in Australia.
I’m proud that NIF in Israel supports non-government organisations that are integral to the flourishing of Israeli civil society and democracy and very excited to be able to support its work on the ground in Israel.
The dream of Israel was to create a democracy with equal rights for all, not just in the wording of the page, but also in reality, regardless of one’s religion, race or sex.
There are flaws in Israel’s democracy, just as there are in every country, and NIF’s work helps empower Bedouin women, train Russian immigrants, work on peace-building through environmental cooperation with Palestinians and Jordanians and provide assistance through Israel’s legal system to its Arab minority.
Once I understood these were the principles of the New Israel Fund, that they were so similar to my own, and that their grantees’ work is with many organisations so well known to me, it was a no-brainer to become actively involved. With NIF I can contribute directly to helping Israelis make Israel a better country, along with many others who are involved and share my ideals.
Some individuals have focussed entirely in recent weeks on criticising alleged conduct of a very few NIF grantees, even past ones. Reasonable minds can agree or differ on minutiae about particular grantees, but that is no reason to demonise an entire organisation that does so much good for Israel and speaks so powerfully to young Jews like me.
Communal dialogue should be centred on how to attract and include the maximum number of young Jews, by being open, welcoming and diverse, and NIF is part – though not the only part – of that picture.
It is short-sighted for the community to be questioning why young people are not involved and at the same time to allow undermining of organisations, like NIF, that offer a central focus for youth engagement.
The New Israel Fund in Australia has given me an avenue of engagement, and it will do the same for others of my generation. We should welcome it and watch as it breathes new life into our community.
Liam Getreu is a member of the New Israel Fund board and a former president of AUJS.