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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

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Rabbi calls for new ‘narrative’ for young Jews

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Rabbi Donniel Hartman

TORONTO — Israel is a tiny, fragile nation in existential peril, with barbarians knocking at the door. It needs your help to survive.

Is that a reflection of current reality, or is this closer to the truth: Israel is strong, confidant, innovative, a world leader in so many fields, a real “start-up nation”?

Is the Jewish Diaspora locked into the first narrative, asked Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem? Is it a viewpoint that’s out of date and doesn’t appeal to younger members of the community?

Rabbi Hartman, who was in Toronto earlier this month to deliver the Ron & Aviva Heller Memorial Lecture at the southern branch of the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, comes down squarely in favour of the second proposition.

He believes today’s young people are turned off by the “death narrative” that is common currency in many Jewish organizations. If you want to reach young Jews today, you need to develop “a new conversation around Israel…Young people want to be attracted to a narrative of a strong Israel,” he said.

To younger people, Israel “is too powerful to claim its survival is at stake. It can’t be start-up nation and pathetic nation at the same time,” Rabbi Hartman added.

The conversation, therefore, should be about the country’s accomplishments, what it has built, he believes.

The Shalom Hartman Institute is working with Diaspora organizations to train new leaders to help nudge the conversation in that direction and in so doing, appeal to young Jews. Re-shaping the narrative about Israel is part of that effort, which will pay dividends by making sure the State of Israel and Diaspora Jewry do not drift apart. Without it, “we could find ourselves in a world we don’t want to be in,” he said.

To back up his belief, he pointed to an informal poll he conducted at Tanenbaum CHAT, where 50 per cent of the Canadians disapproved of the Gilad Schalit deal, in which Israel traded more than 1,000 Palestinians, many of them killers, for a single imprisoned Israeli soldier.

By contrast, 78 per cent of Israelis supported it. The reason: Israelis feel strong, confident and secure enough to make the deal, he said.

He bolstered his argument with data that suggests, counter-intuitively, that Israelis don’t despair of their situation. A survey conducted by Gallup, released last April, ranked Israel seventh out of 124 countries based on the reported happiness level of residents. Even the social demonstrations this past summer suggest Israelis “feel strong enough to deal with problems that were put off [to deal with] terrorism,” Rabbi Hartman said.

Community leaders need to present a positive picture of Israel to attract the affiliation of young Jews. “Young people need to see something meaningful in Israel that they can help shape,” he added.

On the broader question of keeping people interested in Judaism and Jewish continuity, Rabbi Hartman said, “There is no Jewish continuity without content.” That means Jewish institutions have to “compete” to attract people to their events and institutions.

“For 3,000 years, Judaism was based on its ideas.” Today, however, many Jews will “shop around” for something meaningful in their lives.

A religious service that satisfies a 70-year-old might not necessarily appeal to someone younger. But, “If you went to a synagogue and heard something important… and added value to your life, you’d make the commitment” of joining the congregation, he suggested.

The Shalom Hartman Institute can help rabbis “be better communicators of Jewish ideas that are compelling and significant,” he said. Among its activities, it offers education, training and enrichment programs for scholars, educators and rabbis from North America. Pulpit rabbis who have been with congregations for years need time to rejuvenate and to study, he added.

“If a rabbi is intellectually excited, the whole congregation is transformed. Teachers and principals too.”

The onus is on rabbis, educators and lay leaders to continually challenge and interest the community in Judaism.

That’s always been the case, Rabbi Hartman said. Historically, “50,000 Jews set the agenda for Jewish life… If you affect those 50,000, Jewish life gets elevated.”

“Our job is to create a community that allows people to aspire to excellence, and we need institutions that foster it,” he said.

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