Firing Up The Unaffiliated
Can this be the way to get young Jewish people interested in Israel and Judaism?
What it is about...
How a small Israel advocacy group is having a big impact on secular Jewish twenty-somethings.
Gary Rosenblatt - Editor And Publisher
Alexa Silverman, a 20-year-old student at Hofstra University, describes herself as a secular Jew who "had a problem with the way Judaism was taught" when she was young.
Benjamin Turk, 27 and working in sales, was raised Reform and was a counselor at a Zionist summer camp, but says that even then he was "skeptical" about Israel and its actions.
Katherina (Katt) Guttman, 28, with a career in fitness management, grew up in Staten Island, where she was "always proud to be Jewish but didn't know why."
For the American Jewish community, the quest to reach people like Silverman, Turk and Guttman young adults who are unaffiliated or on the margins when it comes to identifying with Israel, Judaism and communal activities has become the modern-day Impossible Dream. Every synagogue, federation and Jewish organization wants them. But most young people just aren't interested or worse.
"In sharp contrast to their parents and grandparents, non-Orthodox younger Jews, on the whole, feel much less attached to Israel than their elders," noted sociologists Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman in a new study called "Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation From Israel." What's more, the authors conclude that "mounting indifference to Israel" has grown into "genuine alienation" for many young Jews who "profess a near-total absence of any positive feelings about Israel."
More than half of those under 35 surveyed did not agree with the statement that "Israel's destruction would be a personal tragedy."
All the more reason why our community should be paying more attention to a little-known success story, a low-budget, nonprofit group based in New York called Fuel For Truth (www.fuelfortruth.org), which has made impressive strides in making pro-Israel advocates and activists out of primarily secular, disaffected Jews between the ages of 18 and 34.
Among its most fervent volunteers are Silverman and Turk, who spend hours each week recruiting new members or planning events. And Guttman left her job last year to work full time as Fuel For Truth's director of operations.
What's the secret formula? No magic, say the group's leaders, but rather an emphasis on creating a strong social network built on volunteerism, seeking leadership types with good communication and organizational skills, and instilling in them a passion for the Zionist cause.
Fuel For Truth was founded six years ago by Jonathan Loew, now 36, and about a dozen friends, all secular, who were upset at the negative media portrayal of Israel during the second intifada. They had been talking about starting a group to educate their peers about Israel, but the 9/11 attack gave them the sense of urgency to move forward.
"We realized the clear connection between the enemies of the U.S. and of Israel," said Loew, an investment banker with a background in media, "and we accelerated our planning."
Group members started visiting college campuses in the Northeast, looking for students who were popular socially, and asked them to help plan a social event on campus that mixed music and alcohol with small doses of "basic information" about the Mideast conflict, beginning with the notion that Israel is a democracy that has been rebuffed repeatedly in its efforts to make peace with its Arab neighbors.
The organizers were amazed at how little the Jewish students knew about Israel or Judaism.
"We asked them how many Jews there were in the world, where the word Jew comes from, where Israel is on the map," recalled Loew, "and they just didn't know. It was really sad when they would tell us, `I just learned more in 15 minutes about Israel and Judaism than what I've learned in my whole life.'"
Based on the campus response, Fuel For Truth expanded and started holding social events with 500 to 1,000 young people or more in popular Manhattan clubs once or twice a year, in addition to holding events at seven colleges in the Northeast.
Operating with a modest budget ($250,000, mostly from individual donors), the group now has two full-time employees, and its eight volunteer committees handle fundraising, recruitment and information for its 200 active members.
Several years ago Fuel For Truth added a "Boot Camp" program for 20 select volunteers 10 consecutive Tuesday nights of three-hour educational sessions to train future leaders of the group, many of whose recruits have gone on birthright israel trips.
At a recent Boot Camp session, held on the second floor of a hip East Side restaurant, the participants heard from a young Mideast scholar at Harvard, who offered a 20-minute "crash course" on Israel's wars since 1948. Then a non-Jewish Green Beret veteran of recent combat in Iraq spoke passionately about the need for Israel and the U.S. to respond to their militant Islamic enemies pre-emptively.
"Stop sleeping," he warned. "The war is on, and they're out to get us."
The mood of the evening was a curious mix of relaxed informality, a macho emphasis on Jewish strength and Zionist indoctrination, with tips given by group leaders on how to organize fundraising events to support Fuel For Truth (a requirement) and how to make Israel advocacy points in conversations with peers while avoiding unpleasant confrontations or arguments. After the sessions, many of the participants go out for a beer together.
"We teach them social advocacy first," says Joe Richards, 34, a former actor and friend of Loew's who is now the full-time executive director of Fuel For Truth. "You need to establish social relations with people before you can introduce political advocacy." His advice is part communications skills, part educational techniques like smiling, making eye contact, being a good listener and avoiding confrontations.
"Always have a message triangle of three solid facts you want to get across," he told the Boot Campers. For example, Israel is a democracy, Arabs living in Israel have more rights than those living in Arab countries and the PLO was founded to "liberate Palestine" three years before Israel captured any Arab land in the 1967 war.
Richards also advised the group to spend five minutes in social settings presenting five facts about Israel to five people, and then change the subject. "Don't overdo it," he said.
Some critics point to the social aspects of Fuel For Truth and its bite-sized educational approach and dismiss it as Zionism Lite. But research analyst Frank Luntz, in a report for the group on its impact, found that "you are filling a void that no other Jewish organization has filled," most notably in attracting young people with little previous knowledge of or interest in Israel.
"You have engaged new people in new ways," he wrote, noting that most members don't attend synagogue. "You are clearly reconnecting disconnected Jews with Israel, and that may well be the first step to reconnecting them on other levels as well."
Such praise makes founder Loew all the more frustrated with the relative lack of financial support his group has received from major foundations. He wonders why those who are spending millions of dollars to verify that young Jews are feeling alienated toward Israel aren't recognizing Fuel For Truth's unique approach to dealing with the problem.
"We make them [young Jews] confront their own ignorance and their own self-doubts. We lead them in a direction, but they choose their own paths," he said, adding that unlike most Jewish groups, Fuel For Truth plays hard to get.
"When young people are begged to join a group, they won't do it. But if it's exclusive, they want to be in. We turn it around and say, `We have a great organization and we'd like to know what you'll bring to it.'"
Volunteers must work their way up the ranks through attending Boot Camp or showing other leadership skills. Loew is critical of organizations that "tell inexperienced 22-year-olds to join as Young Leaders."
"The volunteer aspect is key for us," said Guttman, who said she came to work for Fuel For Truth because she felt she could have a significant impact on people. "If we don't reach our members, then we're nothing."
While there is no one silver bullet for inspiring uninvolved Jewish young people, it's clear that Fuel For Truth is onto something. American Jewish organizations and foundations would do well to sit up and take notice.
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