Bringing young Jews into the fold is essential

This hasn’t been Israel’s happiest year. The country has been largely free of terror and missile attacks in the south and north, but regional threats continue to reassert themselves in the form of Hezbollah’s rearmament in Lebanon and continued rule by Hamas in Gaza. Of key concern for Israel and the entire world, Iran continues to progress toward a nuclear weapon.

The peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority finally renewed just recently, but it has not been a bed of roses. Immediately after the proximity talks resumed, the Palestinian leadership tried to derail Israel’s acceptance to the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), and one wonders how this helps in the pursuit of a mutually beneficial peace.

Akiva Tor

But at least we are talking again, even if indirectly. We’ve been down this road twice before and seen the process stall with bad consequences for both our peoples. There is a sense of realism in the air, but also the budding of hope.

This has also been a year of some tension between Jerusalem and Washington (in my view, largely unintended by either side, but nevertheless there) even as security cooperation has deepened along with the shared awareness of the meaning of a nuclearizing Iran.

Despite these somber ruminations, at April’s Israel Cleantech Summit in Palo Alto, 10 remarkable Israeli green start-ups presented, reminding the venture capital community that Israeli innovation remains incredibly dynamic and energized no matter the political environ.

Neither for the Jewish community in the Bay Area has this been a great nostalgia year. The economic crisis is dissipating, but philanthropic giving is still down and many community institutions feel stress. Quality Jewish education is widely available but increasingly expensive, and for many families providing this essential resource to their children has become a daunting financial challenge.

At U.C. Berkeley there was an attempt to pass an Israel divestment resolution, which failed due to determined work by Hillel and devoted Jewish student groups. But it left a bad taste, and the prospects for Jewish-Muslim dialogue on campus were harmed, I hope not for long.

How should we respond to a stress environment? When times are tough, strategy becomes even more important.

Last year at this time I wrote about the innovative capacity of the Bay Area Jewish community, and how it might lead with next big idea after Birthright Israel. My suggestions were:

Birthright for adults, sponsored by synagogues for potential members;

Affordable Jewish education, based on a new funding model;

Jewish Peace Corps, a Jewish service organization for young Israelis and Jews to lead healing missions around the world.

But at present, we need to stay focused on the current big idea, Birth-right Israel itself, and make sure that it succeeds. My suggestion:

No waiting list for Birthright: Birthright waiting lists (nearing 70 percent rejection of current applicants) is a problem throughout North America, and not less so in every corner of the Bay Area. Studies show that a Birthright candidate turned away is unlikely to reapply next year. Our failure to procure adequate resources on this front is a strategic blunder. We can’t afford to drop the ball on this one, even in times of scarcity, 

Exposure of every young Jew, however unaffiliated, to the dynamic energy of Israel is our surest strategy for long- term growth as a community, and the best way Israel and the Bay Area can help each other in times of stress.

The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation understands the waitlist challenge, and is working hard to make sure that the promise of Birthright remains available to every young Jew who seeks to make the journey. Each of us needs to help make this happen.