‘Bound by history’

Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid told young D.C.-area Jews last week that “we share a collective destiny.” Photos courtesy of The Jewish Federation of  Greater Washington
Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid told young D.C.-area Jews last week that “we share a collective destiny.”
Photos courtesy of The Jewish Federation of
Greater Washington

When Steven Rakitt, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, received a call asking if he could gather a group of young D.C. adults together, because Israel’s minister of finance wanted to speak with them, he knew just what to do.

Only one month later, on Wednesday of last week, close to 700 people, three-fourths of them under the age of 30, filled a theater in the Ronald Reagan Building and applauded enthusiastically as Finance Minister Yair Lapid told them that “we are bound by history to each other. We share a destiny. We share a collective destiny.”

The young Jewish professionals appeared to agree as Lapid told them, “We are part of something” while some people spend their lives trying to fit into a group, “a cult, gangs, country clubs.”

Many of those in the audience are active in the Federation and some had attended a 10-day trip to Israel compliments of Taglit-Birthright Israel. What they all had in common was the desire to connect with other Jews and be a part of what many they referred to as the D.C. Jewish community.


Some members of this tight community include Josh Stevens, who went on a Birthright trip in the summer of 2005. Stevens said he wanted “to pay forward” for the free trip and the many “aha” moments he felt while in Israel, including one Shabbat dinner that was followed by dancing a hora “of bar mitzvah proportions.” He currently is a co-chair of Young Leadership at the Federation.

Mica Cohen went on Birthright in the summer of 2010 and called it “an eye-opening experience. I loved it.” The D.C. resident said it was “hard to explain the feeling you get when you are there in front of the Wall.” Although it’s been more than three years since she went, she still carries the desire to be close to the Jewish community, she said.

For Rebecca Gittler, her 2008 trip convinced her to return to Israel and study for a semester at Hebrew  University. The Foggy Bottom resident believes visiting Israel when she was still young formed what she expects to be a lifelong bond for her.

Jason Gates’ February 2013 trip “gave me the gift of how to connect with the Jewish community,” noted the Bethesda resident.

These views are just what Rakitt and Gidi Mark, CEO of Taglit-Birthright, like to hear. Rakitt sees both Birthright trips and ones sponsored by the Federation as ways to not only keep young Jews Jewish but also to create future leaders.

Thirteen thousand Jews living in the D.C. area have gone on a Birthright trip. Thanks to efforts by the Federation to keep them involved, some of those alumni are returning to Israel on specific missions geared to engage people of different backgrounds. These trips, which are subsidized by the Federation, enable young adults from this area to travel and experience Israel together.

“We believe if you go as a community, you come back as a community,” Rakitt said.

One new program, Reverse Mifgash, brings to Washington, D.C., the Israelis who traveled on the buses and led discussions for the local groups while in Israel. Last year, 20 Israelis were brought here for about 10 days to rekindle connections. “We see that as a platform,” Rakitt explained.

Both Rakitt and Mark are incredibly proud that they are able to help so many young Jews get to know Israel. In a 40-minute interview prior to the Lapid’s speech, Mark talked about the nearly 400,000 young Jews who have visited Israel in the past 14 years thanks to his organization.

“It’s truly becoming a right of passage for young Jewish adults,” Mark said.

Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 who have never gone on a group trip to Israel can participate in the free 10-day experience.

The government of Israel provides close to $40 million a year for these trips. Big-time donors, Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, donate about the same amount. Another $30 million comes from foundations and individual donors, most of whom have either been on a Birthright trip or sent their children on one.

Getting government money wasn’t easy at first with many Israelis asking, “ ‘How can you pay for rich Americans when there are so many poor in Israel,’ ” Mark recalled. Now, it is not controversial, he said. “We believe that every young Jew in the world is born with a birthright, a free ticket to Israel,” Mark said, calling that offer “the single most efficient way to strengthen young people’s identities” with Israel and Judaism.

“We don’t charge people for giving them a gift,” Mark said. There are some young Jews who have no interest in Israel and “wouldn’t pay 50 cents for something that intimidates them.” These Jews are a big target for Birthright.

When the program started almost 14 years ago, 2,000 people took advantage of the free trip. This year, close to 44,000 will do so, he said, calling that a “2,000 percent increase in numbers.” Each trip consists of 42 travelers and eight Israelis, many of whom are soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces.

While on the bus traveling through Israel, the participants get to know Israelis who are roughly the same age, and they also see that these soldiers “are not the ruthless Israeli soldiers portrayed so negatively in the media,” Mark said.

Friendships that are formed on these trips often continue long after everyone returns home. Mark attributed the rise in social media as an easy way to stay connected and noted that there are about 2,500 Facebook pages from individual trips.

While Mark stressed the educational and shared community bonding of these trips, there are many who criticize Birthright as a dating service and a chance for young people to go wild for 10 days.

“We are not JDate. People who are 18 to 26 sometimes eat. They sometimes drink. They sometimes party,” Mark said, noting that those on Birthright trips “are completely normal” young people.

After saying that, he then said, obviously proudly, that there are “thousands, thousands of participants who met on their trip” and went on to marry and have babies. These people are remaining Jewish, he said.

Birthright keeps statistics on its participants as well as people who signed up for a trip, but for various reasons, never went. In comparing the two groups, Mark said that those who went were 30 percent more likely to raise their children as Jews and 40 percent more likely to marry a Jew than those who stayed home.

“That’s a huge difference,” he said.

Mark described the trips as educational, but noted they are not designed to highlight a particular ideology. “We open the door for them” to ask questions, explore what they are interested in and learn how to find answers, he said.

A trip to the Wall is mandatory. After that, tour guides are given flexibility. They must visit a historic site, but that includes lot of choices, Mark said. The most popular choice is Masada.

Birthright also runs themed trips including ones for the disabled and for the LBGT community.

Israel needs all these visitors. Its future is like a four-legged stool, Mark said. It must have a strong economy and military. It needs the support of the United States and “the solidarity of Jewish people all over the world. Without any one of those legs, Israel’s future would be shaky.”

Clearly Lapid agrees with this need to form bonds with Jews around the world. His recent visit to the United States included a private meeting with Vice President Joe Biden and numerous speeches with political professionals.

But he wanted to make sure there was time to speak to the young adults invited by the Federation. He told them about his background. His father was a young boy in Budapest during the Holocaust who survived thanks to some quick thinking by his mother, who took him to a public lavatory during a Nazi roundup of Jews.

He and his father “were just a statistical error. He was supposed to be dead, and I was not supposed to be born,” Lapid told the audience. “He lost his God in the Holocaust, and I found mine in the Lebanon War.”

He urged everyone in the audience to be part of the bigger Jewish community and not a member of the “me-first, self-centered” generation.

Lapid, who turns 50 later this month, is the founder of the Yesh Atid party, which holds 19 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. Before entering politics, he anchored a Friday evening television news program for three years and a popular talk show for eight years. He also is the author of 11 books.

One day after speaking with young people, Lapid addressed The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a D.C. think tank, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and reaffirmed his call for a two-state solution.

Lapid said many outside America look at the conflict as a human rights issue in which Israel is the strong one. “The weak are always just and righteous” in this view of the conflict. “The message is simple. Israel is strong and therefore is wrong,” he said.

This makes no sense when Israel is a democracy, giving rights to women and gays, and the other side does not, he noted. Israel believes in freedom of speech, and the Palestinians are often Holocaust-deniers, he continued.

The problem is much more complicated than merely a human rights issue, Lapid stressed. Just the word Palestinian is complex. It could refer to his friend in East Jerusalem or a member of a terrorist organization.

He also criticized the U.S. government’s attitude that the conflict is an analytical one, one that can be solved by “opening the hood and finding what wires need to be fixed.”

The trouble is, Lapid said, “everyone is looking under the wrong hood.” Don’t talk about borders, land swaps and Jerusalem as technical problems that can be solved, he urged.

The real problem is “about fear, and the problem is about mistrust.” Past traumas on both sides make it extremely hard to find solutions, he said.

“The Palestinians want peace and justice. Israelis want peace and security, and that’s very different,” he said, adding, “How can people who do not believe a word of each other sign an agreement?” And Lapid acknowledged he was not immune. “I admit it that I need time, because I do not believe the Palestinians.”

Rather than give up, Lapid said both sides need to be creative, take chances, take risks.

To Lapid, Iran is a threat for the entire world, and one that he spoke in detail to with Biden right before his speech at the Washington Institute. Solving that “is not a key to anything. We have nothing to gain, only to lose.”

But ending the conflict with the Palestinians will assure a better life for Israel’s future generations.

“People who say it’s too complex; they just don’t want to change anything. We need to get together those who want to change things,” he said, adding that he is one who wants change.

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