{4F805597-AC32-42F4-9EE2-BAD88CE3B8B2} From the Desk of Natan Sharansky
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From the Desk of Natan Sharansky

February 2012 / Adar 5772

In the coming days, thousands of people will descend on Washington, D.C. for the 2012 AIPAC Policy Conference, where they will spend three days celebrating and strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship.  Accompanying the hundreds of student participants will be no fewer than 20 of our 50 Jewish Agency Israel Fellows to Hillel, who are posted on campuses across North America in a wonderful partnership with Hillel in order to offer Jewish students a personal connection to Israel and Jewish life.

I remember when I first talked about expanding the Israel Fellows program during my first months as chairman of this organization.  I found that I was often asked whether I viewed the Jewish Agency as a political organization.  The answer, of course, is no, but it is an interesting question and it bears addressing.

The heart of the debate on college campuses in North America is increasingly not between left and right – whether or not certain policies are acceptable, certain negotiating positions legitimate, or certain concessions justified.  The debate on North American campuses is about the very legitimacy of Israel – whether the Jewish state has the very right to exist, and whether Israel is something to which Jewish young people ought to be connected.  When respected institutions of higher learning play host to radical gatherings aimed at undermining Israel’s existence and when Jewish students find themselves swimming in a sea of falsehoods and disinformation, many are left wondering whether Israel is a place with which they wish to have a relationship or perhaps it is better—and certainly easier—for them to disconnect.

And it is in light of that assault and the questions it raises that the Jewish Agency’s mission has become ever more vital.

The heart of our strategic plan is connection—connection to one’s Jewish identity, to the Jewish people, and to Israel.  Taglit-Birthright Israel—a remarkable project in which we are proud and prominent partners—has provided hundreds of thousands of Jewish young people with an initial connection to Israel and, in many cases, to Jewish life.  Masa Israel Journey, a partnership between the Jewish Agency and the government of Israel, seeks to build upon and enhance that connection by bringing young Jews—including many Birthright alumni—to Israel for extended periods of time.  Our new Onward/Yalla Israel program will offer Jewish young people the chance to spend a few months in Israel over the summer, further cementing the connection and providing participants with opportunities for growth and personal development.  Project TEN—which we look forward to launching later this year—will bring together young Jews from Israel and around the world to engage in meaningful service learning experiences and develop closer connections to one another and to their Jewish identity. 

Our strong investment in these programs and initiatives is based on remarkable data and proven results.  According to the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, Birthright participants are 46% more likely to feel “very much” connected to Israel than non-participants, 51% more likely to marry Jewish spouses, and 35% more likely to view raising their children as Jewish as “very important.”  A study by Prof. Steven A. Cohen and Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz found even more impressive levels of Jewish engagement among Masa participants, 91% of whom marry Jewish spouses and 50% of whom participate in political activity surrounding Israel.  As Cohen and Kopelowitz noted, “the apparent impact of Masa Israel is profound in ALL areas of Israel-related and Jewish engagement” (emphasis in the original).  The study also found that shorter-term experiences in Israel—such as Onward/Yalla—have the capacity to impact Birthright alumni’s Jewish attachments in highly significant ways – individuals who return to Israel for a short stay are twice as likely to feel attached to Israel, engage in political activity surrounding Israel, and view dating and marrying Jews as important as those who have not returned.  And when it comes to aliyah, the data is conclusive – one fifth of Masa alumni choose to make Israel their home, and that number is significantly higher amongst participants from such countries as Russia and France.  The numbers speak for themselves.

But it is not only about numbers.  Just this past Shabbat, I had the pleasure of hosting two young students who are participating in a Masa program on one of the country’s kibbutzim.  During the course of our conversation, they shared with me that they had grappled with the seeming contradiction between their commitments to progressive values and to Israel.  Experiencing life in Israel firsthand, they told me, enabled them to reconcile the two and discover how their liberal sensibilities could be realized through their Zionism.  This could only have happened through the sort of long-term experience that Masa is making possible for 10,000 Jewish young people this year alone.

Our strategic plan is the best Jewish answer, the best Zionist answer, and the best Israeli answer to the challenges facing Israel and the Jewish people.  Our programs are helping to create a generation of Jewish young people who are more robustly involved in Jewish life, more strongly attached to the Jewish people, and more assertively standing with Israel than we had previously thought possible, and I look forward to working with all of you to create ever-stronger connections amongst Jewish young people in Israel and around the world.

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