North America Jewish community leaders and Jewish Agency for Israel professionals gathered in Toronto earlier this month to discuss the potential their joint Israel engagement program has to connect Diaspora communities to the Holy Land, as well the findings from a recently completed research study about Israel engagement initiatives in Toronto.
“This study takes place at a time when there is a great deal of debate about whether Diaspora Jews today, especially younger ones, feel closer and connected to or more distant and alienated from Israel than those even less than a decade ago,” begins the study, titled The Israel-Engaged in the Toronto Jewish Community.
More than 1,500 people were surveyed, and 98 others participated in one of 19 focus groups.
Michael Diamond, the founder of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Israel engagement committee and gap-year program, said the reason Toronto was featured and chosen as the setting for the conference, co-sponsored by federation and JAFI, was because the city is considered a leader in Israel engagement.
Alan Hoffmann, the agency’s director general, said that “the major focus of the conference was the pioneering role that Toronto has had in developing a community-wide strategy” for Israel engagement.
What makes Toronto unique, and one of the reasons it has been “so ahead of the pack” when it comes to Israel engagement is because of its passionate commitment to Israel, Hoffman said.
“Toronto is clearly an international leader,” he said, adding that perhaps the city should be treated as “a kind of teaching hospital.”
One of the findings highlighted in the study was that interactions with shlichim (emissaries) from Israel are associated with higher levels of engagement with the Jewish state.
Diamond said that’s in part because of the shinshinim program, developed by JAFI for North American cities and implemented in Toronto by the federation, in which Israeli teens who defer army service for a year volunteer with schools, shuls, camps and other local institutions.
He said Jews who spent years in Jewish day schools might have knowledge about Israel, but not necessarily a connection to it. Diamond says the shinshinim program, can help make that connection.
“If you have 24 shinshinim coming into the city, and they stay with three host families [over the course of] the year… they’re building strong connections with the family, their friends… the estimate is that about 50 people within each of the family units are significantly impacted by the shinshinim while they’re living there.”
That means some 3,500 people a year become directly connected to these Israeli volunteers, he said, and that’s without accounting for the impact they make on the schools and synagogues they work with.
“If Israelis and Diaspora Jews have a connection, then the thought is it will lead to a long-lasting connection based on an emotional connection and generate the interest to stay connected.”
A shinshinim program host who participated in the survey reported that the relationship he formed with an Israeli volunteer continued years later.
“In his words, ‘It is like having a son in Israel.’ This continuing relationship is quite different from the short-term intensity of most experiences in Israel. It speaks to the relational outcomes of being exposed to what interviewees call ‘real people’ who share their passion for Israel,” the study said.
“It seems then that relationships with shinshinim may not be ‘transformative’ in the way that trips to Israel are experienced, but they may constitute a more intimate and a more continuous part of people’s lives,” the study added.
Diamond said the shinshinim program has been adopted by other Canadian federations, including in Ottawa, Montreal and Vancouver, and that 36 out of 100 shinshinim in North America have been placed in Canada.
“That’s interesting, considering the American community is 20 times our size,” Diamond said.
Some of the study’s other findings are centred around the idea that young adults under the age of 30 are more detached from Israel than older Jews.
The report suggests that while it is widely assumed that Jews under 30 are alienated from traditional Zionist narratives because of hostile anti-Israel climates on university campuses, “we found that age cohorts differ significantly only in respect to one particular image: their view of Israel as a ‘place to be safe from anti-Semitism.’”
The study noted that “the younger the respondents, the fewer there are who agree with this image, with 44 per cent of those under the age of 30 expressing strong or complete agreement.”
But researchers found there was a “surprising uniformity of opinion across the age cohorts” in response to all of the other statements relating to Israel’s image.
They concluded that based on their findings from focus groups, Israel is an important part of what connects young, secular Jews to Jewish life, since they don’t find meaning in mainstream community events.
“They have the highest levels of cultural engagement with Israel but the lowest rates of communal engagement. This group is also the most concerned about the political situation in Israel. It is worth considering whether different or new forms of community programming might engage this minority population,” the report said.