American Jews are fortunate to be living in the freest and most open society the world has ever known. The American experiment of democracy, equality and civic engagement has provided incredible opportunities for Jews to assimilate into the social, cultural, economic and political mainstream. As a result, Jews have achieved unprecedented levels of acceptance, success and integration in America.
But for Jewish communal life, the spirit of freedom has created new challenges. Jewish engagement no longer suffers from external impediments. But at the same time, it is no longer compelled by external – or internal – obligation. In such an atmosphere, it can be tempting to forget the very factors that contributed to Jewish acceptance: a confluence of cultures in constant engagement with one another.
Like so much else in American culture, contemporary Jewish engagement is an individual choice, and in the midst of a multiplicity of cultures, it is a choice that requires active agency. For many, the question boils down to: At a time when American culture has been seeded so thoroughly with Jewish ideas, values and norms, why be Jewish at all? It is the job of the Jewish community to provide these reasons.
One of the most valuable keys to unlocking greater Jewish engagement is the modern state of Israel and its evolving history and culture. The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life supports the development of an innovative and comprehensive platform that engages secular American Jews in authentic Jewish experiences rooted in the revived contemporary life of the Jewish people in the state and land of Israel. In addition, bringing the Hebrew language and Israel to the general population reinforces their importance for America – and, not coincidentally, helps lead Jews who are well-integrated into American life to understand the importance of Hebrew and Israel in ways they might not otherwise appreciate.
We have identified two primary pillars on which to build educational and cultural endeavors that recognize the centrality of Hebrew and Israel in the fabric of Jewish Peoplehood: Modern Hebrew language and extended Israel experiences and internships.