Who is the Young Secular Israeli Jew? The Challenge for Jewish Education

May 1, 2006
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Ezra Kopelowitz

There is much hand-wringing among the leadership of Israeli and Diaspora Jewry about the “Jewishness” of young Israeli Jews in general, and their commitment to the relationship with Diaspora Jewry in particular.

There is reason to worry, but it is not because of a lack of commitment on the part of young Israelis to their Jewish identity. Relative to other Western societies, Israeli Jews, young and old, remain a highly ideological and Jewishly-identifying population. Data from the 2000 Guttman/Avi-Chai survey, the only comprehensive national survey on this subject, shows Israeli Jews expressing a high level of Jewish identification. Eighty-two percent of the Israeli Jewish public answered that given the chance they would choose to be born again Jewish, 95 percent feel that they are part of the Jewish people and 70 percent state that Jews in Israel and abroad have a shared destiny.1

While the Guttman survey has not published data comparing generations, in a 2002 study we asked 20 to 30 year-old secular, traditional, and religious Israeli Jews similar questions about their Jewish identity, with similar results.2 Yet, when we asked, “If you were born abroad, would you choose to be Jewish?” the numbers dropped drastically, with only 35 percent of the secular respondents giving an affirmative response to the question.

Why did the secular participants in the study give positive answers to questions that touch on Jewish pride and identity, but a largely negative response to the question about the ability to imagine being born a Jew abroad?

An answer: For most secular Israeli Jews, being Jewish is first and foremost associated with practices that occur as a result of living in Israel and are not easily replicated in the Diaspora context. Whereas the traditionalist and religious Jew practices “Jewish” rituals and customs at home or in a communal framework in a manner that is similar to Jews the world over, the secular Israeli Jew does not have a similar frame of reference. Being Jewish is about living in the public sphere of the Jewish state, which includes public holidays such as Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Day of Remembrance for Fallen Soldiers, the public aspects of the various religious holidays that mark the calendar year, army service, and the nationalist aspects of soccer and basketball, among other possible examples. Enter the home or areas of life in which one has direct control and little to no explicitly Jewish content informs everyday life.

This is the reverse of the well known Diaspora formulation of taking off a kippa when leaving home or being a Jew at home and a worldly person in public. Any attempt to reach out to the young secular Israeli Jew on issues of Israel-Diaspora relations must distinguish between the public and the private Jew. The public Jew is a unique Israeli phenomenon and requires a different conceptual framework and set of educational strategies.3

On one hand, the question of how to devise an effective educational strategy for the secular Jewish population is gaining increased attention. Institutions from the Jewish Agency to the Ministry of Education, the Community Center Associations, the Army, youth movements,and an increasing number of third sector organizations are investing heavily in educational outreach to secular Israelis. On the other hand, little systematic thought is being given to the defining features of “Israeli Jewish Education.” Many of the programs resemble their Diaspora equivalents, which focus on strengthening knowledge about Jewish ritual and sacred texts. Is this an effective strategy for a secular Jewish population who live in a world filled with rich Jewish associations that are rooted in the public Israeli experience? An alternative strategy, currently pursued by a very small minority of public figures and educators is to focus on the lack of public discourse and debate among secular Jews concerning the Jewish character of the Israeli society and to create new forums and opportunities for this type intellectual engagement.

What are the problems that Israeli Jewish education is addressing and to what degree does the public nature of secular Israeli Jewish identity need to shape the nature of Jewish education? Hopefully, these questions will stand at the heart of the discussion about Israeli Jewish education that is still in its very early stages.

1 Shlomit Levi, Hanna Levinsohn and Elihu Katz. “A Portrait of Israeli Jewry: Beliefs, Observances, and Values among Israeli Jews 2000,” (Jerusalem: Avi Chai Foundation and Israeli Democracy Institute, 2002).

2 Ezra Kopelowitz and Lior Rosenberg. “Israeli-Jews vs. Jewish-Israelis: The Public and Private Ritual Basis of Israeli Jewish Identification with the Jewish Diaspora,” Download at: http://www.researchsuccess.com/images/users/1/Israeli-Jew.pdf . Also see: Ezra Kopelowitz, “Between Mifgash and Shlichut: Paradigms in Contemporary Zionist Education and the Question of the Ideological Relationship between Israel and Diaspora,” (Jerusalem: Department of Jewish Zionist Education, The Jewish Agency, 2003). Download at: http://www.jajz-ed.org.il/moriya/reports.html .

3 Ezra Kopelowitz, “Who is the Young Israeli Jew: Changing Leisure Habits and ‘Jewish Education.'” (Jerusalem: Department of Jewish Eduation, The Jewish Agency, 2005). Download at: http://www.researchsuccess.com/public/young_Israeli (user: hello, password: letmein).

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Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz, a sociologist specializing in Israel-Diaspora relations and issues of Jewish identity, education, and religion in Israel and the United States, is the founder and CEO of Research Success Technologies ( http://www.researchsuccess.com ), a Jerusalem based company specializing in Internet systems for data management, communication and evaluation.

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