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Jewish World Review Sept. 11, 2001 / 21 Elul, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

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Consumer Reports

Israel crisis highlights problem of creating next generations of educated Jews -- WHEN a student attending a leadership assembly convened by the Hillel organization was asked last month by a Jewish Telegraphic Agency reporter what she thought of the event's Israel advocacy day, the answer was less than enthusiastic.

While praising the programs, she added that it was "also kind of hard to swallow because it was so pro-Israel."

Reading that report, as well as taking into consideration my own recent encounters with many Jewish students, it would seem that it isn't going to be easy mobilizing our college youth to counter a predicted anti-Israel offensive on American campuses this fall.

Even if many of those undergrads who were prepared to spend the end of August cooped up in a Poconos resort with hundreds of other kids are comfortable being "cheerleaders" for Israel, we've still got a problem.

That student, like some others who were quoted in the piece, were too ignorant of the history and the politics of the Middle East to effectively rebut Arab propaganda. And her diffidence about unabashed Zionist advocacy seemed to speak for a generation that had been raised to think of Israel and the Palestinians as two peoples locked in a struggle in which the combatants are morally equivalent.

There is no mistaking the fact that waving the blue-and-white flag at America's colleges and universities is not exactly a shortcut to popularity.

The trouble lies, in part, from the radical shift in student orientation since my college days back in the 1970s. Then, a lack of passion about political causes was distinctly unfashionable and being a firebrand, even for some rather disreputable causes, was cool.

Today, I am told, political activism is not synonymous with being a geek, but it's not exactly its opposite either.

To the extent that politics is a factor in university life, it is dominated by the sort of insipid left-wing, politically correct crowd that is far more likely to be sympathetic to the Palestinians than to Israel.

Thus, if college campuses are to be a major target for anti-Israel forces in this country, the question is what can be done to create a generation of students that cares about Israel in the same way that their predecessors cared about Soviet Jewry or (in much larger numbers) the war in Vietnam.

The creators of the Birthright Israel program that brings American Jewish students to Israel for their first visit to the Jewish state have one answer - and it seems to be working well. Free travel is hard to resist, even for those whose backgrounds are devoid of Jewish knowledge or affiliation. Happily, the Arab violence that has deterred most American Jews from visiting Israel hasn't significantly decreased the demand for seats on Birthright missions.

But as marvelous as that program is, even its most ardent defenders understand that it is not a panacea for a problem that is better addressed far earlier in the lives of Jewish youth.

For the last decade, Jewish communal leaders have struggled with the question of who will follow them in the future. The great "continuity crisis" that arose out of the National Jewish Population Survey of 1990 pointed out the failures of an American Jewish community whose identity was based on culture and politics unleavened by faith and Jewish knowledge.

Raising another generation of Jews with a strong secular education - but who were Jewishly illiterate - was a formula that would lead to no one being willing to contribute money to pay the salaries of Jewish communal professionals in the future. And that was something taken seriously.

It led to a moment, as one high-ranking Jewish bureaucrat recently confided to me, when Jewish education was, for the first time in American Jewish history, pushed to the top of our priority list.

Day schools around the country multiplied, and Jewish federations raised their allocations to education. Strategists and fundraisers started, for the first time, giving serious thought to the problem of how to make quality Jewish education available to more than the wealthy few who could afford the exorbitant tuition of day schools.

Yet as we prepare for the release this fall of the long-awaited successor to that famous study, some believe that the "moment" may have passed.

Here in Philadelphia, though funding for education continues to be the community's top priority, a previous Federation president's plan for a "millennium" fund that might have created a Jewish education safety net was never put into effect.

The lack of major sponsors for the plan, coupled with flat fundraising campaigns and the need to find money to fund programs for the Jewish poor - as well as to help Israel absorb immigrants - meant that the dream was never realized.

In the last few years, ardor for more Jewish education hasn't decreased. But the organized Jewish community does not appear to be in a position to make a full-time, quality Jewish-education system a reality. Indeed, Jewish communal professionals seem to now believe that the future of fundraising lies in attracting the growing numbers of interfaith couples.

This means that devoting major resources to a cause that few believe the intermarried support - like comprehensive Jewish education - works against day schools.

That's especially ironic because these same Jewish communal professionals are now confronted with the problem of how to reinvigorate pro-Israel activism in this country.

After a few years in which Israel seemed to play a lesser role in the lives of American Jews, the Palestinian war of terror and invective against Israel and Zionism is reminding us that the future of the Jewish state remains integral to our identities and personal security, whether we live there or not.

Thus, rather than needing programs that reinforce lesser support for Israel, we need them now more than ever.

School begins this month, with day schools remaining often out of the reach of Jewish children whose parents have moderate incomes. But we should remember that promoting affordable Jewish education is fundamentally linked to the prospect of there being future generations of American Jews who understand how important Israel is to our lives.

Ignoring that truth means assuring ourselves that the Jewish student activist who is uncomfortable with a "pro-Israel" message will continue to be the rule - and not the exception.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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