Embracing a data-driven approach to engaging Jewish young adults: The news about young American Jews’ connection to Israel is better than you think, but there’s still a lot of work to do, and we are doing it.

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Dan Elbaum | JNS

Mark Twain once wrote, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”

For decades, many mainstream Jewish communal organizations have struggled with a similar issue: Why don’t younger Jews see Israel in the same way we do? Will their views change with age, or do we face a fundamental, indeed existential challenge to the relationship between American Jews and Israel? The challenge of connectedness is no less real in Israel, where Israelis who are fascinated by American culture evince little interest in the American Jewish community if an act of antisemitism has not occurred.

In contrast to the usual gloom-and-doom assessments, however, a newly released survey from the American Jewish Committee contains some encouraging news on both fronts, as well as an important call for the Jewish world to utilize a data-driven approach to young adult engagement.

Let’s start with the good news. The survey found that 72 percent of American and 89 percent of Israeli Jewish millennials believe it is important for the American Jewish community and Israel to maintain close ties. Overwhelming majorities of both American and Israeli millennials also feel that a strong State of Israel is necessary for the survival of the Jewish people and that a strong Jewish community outside of Israel is necessary as well.

At the same time, the survey underscored the substantial challenges surrounding public opinion on Israel among younger demographics in the U.S., particularly on college campuses. Most alarmingly, more than one in four American Jewish millennials say that the anti-Israel climate on campus or elsewhere has damaged their relationships with friends, and the same number say that the anti-Israel climate on campus and elsewhere has made them rethink their own commitment to Israel.

These findings reveal that the Jewish community has a golden opportunity to cultivate a young adult audience that could be far more receptive to our message than we originally thought, but that there is also a need to avoid breathing a collective sigh of relief and resting on our laurels.

Despite an unprecedentedly partisan atmosphere in both Israel and the United States, and a relentless and well-funded effort by anti-Israel groups to drive a wedge between young American Jews and Israel, deep feelings of attachment are positively thriving. That’s precisely why Jewish leaders must use this data as a framework for further bolstering young Jews’ connection to Israel — and each other — on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Jewish Agency for Israel carries out this mission through a number of initiatives. Yet at its most basic level, our strategy is simple — bringing more young Jews to Israel and more Israel to young Jews. This includes Masa Israel Journey, which since 2004 has brought more than 160,000 young adult participants from more than 60 countries to Israel for an extended period of time; shlichim (Israeli emissaries), who bring Israel-centric educational and social programming to Jewish communities in North America and worldwide; and Partnership2Gether (P2G), which connects global and Israeli communities in city-to-city and region-to-region partnerships in which participants forge meaningful connections through unique programs and one-on-one encounters.

We must, of course, also meet our audience where they are. Our work to foster U.S.-Israel connections is increasingly incorporating an emphasis on Israel’s diversity — a message that powerfully resonates with today’s younger generations. Last year, the Jewish Agency appointed Gadeer Kamal-Mreeh, the first female Druze member of Knesset, as the first Druze community member to serve as a senior shlichah. She supports engagement efforts regarding Israel on North American college campuses, working closely with Hillel International in Washington, D.C. We also hired Sigal Kanotopsky, a well-known Ethiopian-Israeli leader, as our U.S. Northeast Regional Director. Crucially, the stories of Gadeer and Sigal showcase the unique and diverse society of Israel.

In the campus arena, our response to the highly concerning anti-Israel climate is the Jewish Agency Israel Fellows program, in which shlichim work at more than 100 colleges and universities across North America to not only combat antisemitism and anti-Zionism, but to proactively cultivate Israel-positive connections on campus by organizing educational programming on Israeli culture and building diverse coalitions of students who support the Jewish state.

Finally, the Jewish Agency is investing in smaller Jewish communities that have been ignored for far too long. In 2022, we will have two new 18-year-old emissaries on the ground in nine smaller Jewish communities. Members of these communities have lacked a meaningful interaction with Israelis.

The world is changing and our messaging needs to change with it. Months ago, speaking about Israel as a refuge for Jews in danger sounded to many millennials like a speech from their grandfather’s time. Today, with 11,000 new Ukrainian-Jewish citizens of the Jewish state having escaped a devastating war in their country, this idea takes on a new meaning. It is for us as Israel’s advocates and supporters to find the right words to make the case for Israel. The AJC survey exhibits how a younger audience may be prepared to hear that case with open hearts and minds.

Dan Elbaum is head of North America at the Jewish Agency for Israel and the president and CEO of Jewish

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