We may be born as Jews. But Jewish identity, biologically, is not in our DNA. Instead, it is built over time through the cumulative impact of critical experiences.
Today, it often starts with P.J. Library, leading into a Jewish pre-school. From there, our children go to Jewish day schools or supplemental Hebrew Schools, to Jewish summer camps, to Jewish youth groups and on teen travels to Israel. Then they continue to Hillel, Birthright, Honeymoon Israel, and the many other Jewish-American rites of passage we offer our children. But what happens when there is a break in the chain? Does the Israel story change?
COVID-19 has put the Jewish-American community into uncharted territory, but ingenuity has allowed Jewish organizations to provide some semblance of normalcy through the pandemic. Religious schools have moved online, and Jewish organizations interact with their constituencies on Facebook. But that does not include one critical building block of American Jewish identity: trips to Israel and immersive Israel experiences. Tens of thousands of young American Jews, who usually travel to Israel in any given year, are staying home.
That means that thousands of Jewish young people miss the opportunity to see their spiritual homeland with their own eyes and explore it with their own two feet. It means a break in the cumulative building of Jewish identity and a lapse, even if temporary, in this pivotal connection that is so important to the future of American Jewish identity.
This is troubling because Millennials and Generation Z don’t have the same “hard-wired” connection to Israel as their parents and grandparents.
Many of them question their relationship with Israel. Many don’t necessarily believe that they share values with the Jewish state. To maintain and ensure these strong ties between Israel and the Diaspora, we must challenge ourselves during this crisis to develop innovative and engaging programming that communicates directly to these students and young professionals. If we can’t bring them to Israel, we need to get the experience of Israel to them in a way that resonates and inspires them.
In some ways, we are lucky. Millennials and Gen Z were raised in the digital space like no generation before. Therefore, during this time of physical separation, we have an opportunity to reach them where they are and how they interact with the world in ways that were once only possible through travel. Let’s take a look at what Vibe Israel USA is doing. Before Instagram was trendy and TikTok existed, Vibe Israel understood the power that digital influencers would have, and they appear to be ahead of the game again today.