2017-08-02 / Columns

What does it truly mean to us when we hear about ‘Free Israel?’

JCRC Executive Director

“Free Israel?”

Depending on the age demographic of who is reading this column, the headline of “Free Israel” could mean different things.

For those who remember the Six Day War, the 50th anniversary of which we just commemorated, what likely comes to mind is an outcome of a unified or undivided Jerusalem. However, for Millennials, and even parents of Millennials, the first thing they may think of is a Birthright trip. Although this trip is indeed a life-changing one, with regard to future knowledge, understanding and support of Israel, it of course is not truly free, and in fact, may be quite costly to the future of pro- Israel support in our country.

Some background. Recently, our agency held the final session of this year’s Teen Israel Advocacy Training series for teens and college students. We assembled a panel of Hillel and Chabad presidents from Rowan and Stockton Universities along with a Hillel campus ambassador from Syracuse University. We invited them to speak with local teens about opportunities for “Jewish engagement” on campus and the value and meaning it has brought to their college experience.

It was an incredibly informative and engaging session and each of the attendees is now looking forward to putting his or her learning to good use by getting involved “Jewishly” at school. But one issue, or should I say theme, struck me as concerning, both from student and parent perspectives.

It was the use and perception of the word FREE. Although I am certain that every person in the room had heard the expression “there is no free lunch,” when it comes to Jewish programming, conferences, seminars and even travel to Israel, I am afraid many in attendance did not fully appreciate that other Jews (primarily) were underwriting the costs of these programs and trips, including the program they were attending that evening.

The flip side of this concern, or the catch-22, is what I heard repeated time and again at a recent conference I attended in New York. The event, titled “The Seventh Day,” was a daylong, joint program of the Union for Reform Judaism, Hebrew Union College, Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), World Zionist Organization, and JCRC’s parent umbrella organization, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, about the aftermath and legacy of the Six Day War 50 years later.

Panelist after panelist talked about the imperative of providing “the next generation” an opportunity to visit Israel for a meaningful and substantive visit. While this is a lofty and noble ambition, and Birthright is arguably one of the most unique and impactful programs to connect any diaspora population with its origins, nobody believes it is realistic to anticipate that these trips or experiences will be sustainable in perpetuity without many more philanthropists and “everyday Jews” willing to financially contribute to ensure such programs exist.

But here is the rub. As a result of all these low- or no-cost experiences, we may just be creating a generation not of future philanthropists, but of consumers of Jewish and Israel experiences and services at the lowest possible financial cost. This could have, and some might argue already has had, long-term implications for synagogues, day schools, and Federation campaigns. So the real question is, “How can we continue to keep providing ‘free’ Israel experiences while engaging those who take advantage of such programs to support future experiences for others? This is one of the challenges currently being discussed at great length within the Jewish communal field and around our JCRC Israel Advocacy Initiative committee table.

Ironically, we at the JCRC will likely be helping underwrite two upcoming trips to Israel next year, one for women and one for men, who have at least one child 18 years or younger at home and have never previously been to Israel. If interested in learning more about either of these trips, please be in touch with our office.

By the way, if neither the Six Day War nor Birthright means anything to you, then you are definitely someone I want to have reach out to me for a conversation.

Your thoughts and feedback are always welcome at dsnyder@jfedsnj.org 

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