We may have a thing or two to teach Israel about identity

American Jews have given a lot to Israel over the years. Though most of the attention has focused on financial and political support, we in fact appear to have other, more intangible things to offer the Jewish state.

Sometimes, it all begins with a song and campfire.

Two stories this week point to lessons Israelis have learned from American-style Judaism, in particular as it has developed in our summer camps. The joyful way Jewish life is celebrated proved so compelling to some visitors that they exported it back to Israel.

In one case, an Israeli who has spent the last nine summers as an emissary at Camp Tawonga near Yosemite discovered that young American Jews connect to Judaism in a way foreign to most secular Israelis. So he started ShabbaTLV, a music-driven monthly Shabbat celebration designed to appeal to jaded Tel Avivians.

It’s been a success, and he plans to take the concept to other Israeli cities.

Another story profiles the summer camps in Israel run by the Reform and Conservative movements and patterned after American Jewish camps. That model includes not only the basics common to most camps in Israel and elsewhere, such as arts and crafts, sports and encounters with nature, but also the upbeat American approach to Judaism.

That means plenty of singing, praying and communal spirit.

In this way, secular Israelis get a taste of religious and cultural heritage, something many do not experience elsewhere. It doesn’t make them more American; it makes them more well-rounded Jews.

There is a larger message here. While over the last century Israel has evolved its own culture — one that we treasure and respect — it is still a young country with room to grow.

Nobody wants Israel to become a mini-America. Yet as the camp examples show, Israel can learn from us, especially when it comes to nurturing and expressing Jewish identity.

Ask most secular Israelis about identity and they will scoff, saying that simply living in Israel gives them all the Jewish cred they need.

Yet the American model, in which Jews all along the spectrum of observance learn and celebrate the basics of their religious history and culture, can surely help secular Israelis connect with their faith, their heritage and themselves.

We will always value Israel’s unique Jewish character. Thankfully, Israelis seem increasingly open to our own version, too.