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‘For engaged young people, Zionism isn’t top of the list anymore’

Dash Lawrence and Daniella Silverstein
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Published: 15 February 2020

Last updated: 4 March 2024

RISING COSTS, A WEAKENING Australian dollar and the emergence of new Israel programs (in year 10 for instance) have all been identified as reasons why young Australian Jews are forgoing Israel gap year programs. But are there other explanations?

Are perennial fears of violence breaking out between Israelis and Palestinians turning young Jews away? Have the delayed judicial proceedings against alleged paedophile Malka Leifer had an impact? Are internal ruptures within Habonim Dror threatening participation across other programs? Are structured gap year programs in Israel simply losing their appeal?

READ PART 1: Why are Australian youth turning away from a gap year in Israel?

Well, it depends on who you talk to.

You won’t find a more compelling advocate for Israel gap year programs than Noa Shaul.

The 23-year-old Shaul is an alumnus of the Socialist-Zionist movement Habonim Dror. She credits Shnat with changing her life: “Shnat gives independence and leadership, and gives you a community to come back to, and be a madricha (youth counsellor) with, which is an amazing community.

“On Shnat, you’re not a tourist; you contribute, and experience what it’s like to live in Israel.”

But in recent years, Shaul, who has served as chairperson of Australian Zionist Youth Council (AZYC) – the umbrella body representing Australia’s Zionist youth movement groups – has been fighting a losing battle.

“On the whole, youth movement (participation) is going down, and specifically, Shnat numbers,” she says. “Everyone has had to make changes to their programs to keep up with the changing trends.”

Shaul has been working to understand the reasons. Like Leibler and Braver, she sees cost and the rise of year 10 and Birthright programs as likely explanations why young people are turning away. But the bigger reason, she says, is harder to quantify.

“There’s a very big change in the way kids relate to Zionism,” she says.

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“Jewish kids will always say they love Israel. All the kids that go to Europe [for their gap year] will add three weeks of Israel in July to their travels, and they’ll always post a photo on Instagram saying, ‘I’m home’, but the sentiment of actually wanting to go to Israel, to contribute, to live there, isn’t there anymore.”

The young Jewish school leavers she meets have an increasingly global perspective.

“There are definitely engaged young people, but ‘engaged young people’ these days means being engaged in climate action, or feminism, or poverty - a lot of things, but Zionism isn’t at the top of that list anymore.”

It’s a view borne out in research conducted by Emeritus Professor Suzanne Rutland of the University of Sydney and Professor Zehavit Gross of Bar-Ilan University, Israel.

“What we argued was there was a significant intergenerational change among Jewish day school students – that was represented in a number of areas. But (we) saw it strongly in attitudes towards Israel,” Rutland says of their research.

In particular, she adds, the research showed “a move from particularism to universalism.”

Australian Jewry’s post-war generation – Holocaust survivors and their children – has typically seen Israel through the lens of security and survival. The Jewish state has represented an “insurance policy” and an anchoring point for identity in a new, multicultural home.

Beginning in 2008, Rutland and Gross, interviewed and surveyed students, teachers and other school stakeholders. They ran focus groups and observed classes.

Their study found students felt they were being taught a mythic view of Israel. They identified less with the Holocaust, were more inclined  to criticise Israel and more engaged with universal values. As Rutland and Gross explain:

“Israel is not part of their conceptual and extended selves to the same extent that it was to their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Many young Australian Jews, particularly those from a non-religious background, identify more with universalistic concerns.
“Israel is not part of their extended selves to the same extent that it was to their parents’ generations. Many young Australian Jews, particularly non-religious, identify more with universalistic concerns" - Suzanne Rutland and Zehavit Gross

“They prefer identification that has a universal nature combined with their particularistic identification. They are less concerned with Jewish distinctiveness and more concerned with being part of the broader society and to interact with broader social issues.”

Rutland and Gross cited the emergence of Stand Up – a national organisation mobilised around the Jewish concept of tikkun olam (to heal the world) whose young Jewish volunteers work with vulnerable, non-Jewish Australian communities – as evidence of this trend.

In an article published in The Jewish Independent in 2018, the then CEO of Stand Up, Gary Samowitz, wrote: “Our programs are inspired by Jewish values, and have a clear Jewish ethos and culture, but they are focused on our role as global citizens.

“More energy needs to be focused on the creation of alternative expressions of Jewishness outside the mainstream communal buildings, in activities that are personally rewarding and in service of others.”

The research findings by Rutland and Gross, released in late 2015, were unpalatable to Jewish day school leadership who ignored them then and have continued to do so, Rutland says.

On learning that Israel gap year numbers have been declining, she was disappointed but not surprised. The alarm bells have been ringing for some time.

An alumnus of the religious-Zionist Bnei Akiva (she went on a youth leadership program known as Machon, in 1964), Rutland knows the role that Israel gap year programs can play; her life was changed by the experience.

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“Were it not for the education I experienced through Machon, it’s very likely I would never have gone on to do the work that I have,” she says.

But what inspired Rutland more than half a century ago, might be lost on a new generation.

Lee Oz, National Director for English-speaking Countries of Hashomer Hatzair (a Zionist secular-humanist movement), says the movement is challenged over how to retain its historical socialist identity and values, and stay relevant to changing student and societal values.

“Today, people are more interested in coming and continuing to enrich and develop themselves in a classroom, and less in coming and doing something like volunteering or being active in Israeli society,” she says.

“Every year we do new thinking about what we can do to give participants additional things that they’re looking for. So, we do update the program, but we make sure that they are based on the same values.”

One such example is a new component to Hashomer Shnat, which gives participants the chance to learn about and implement their own social change initiatives, rather than just take part in traditional, established volunteer organisations.
Aardvark, another non-youth movement affiliated gap year, offers a choice of add-ons including internships with Israeli design labels, start-ups and tech companies. For Gen Z, the opportunity of learning to code, rather than learning to pick olives, must have appeal.

This desire for a break from traditional gap year formats has, in recent years, sparked new programs into existence. These new programs are geared towards a generation of globally conscious young people – keen on self-development and hungry for experiences aligned with their preferences and values.

The Ohrsom Israel program, launched in Australia in 2019, offers Israel as “a home base”. Participants can experience life on a kibbutz and volunteer for organisations like Magen David Adom – but that’s just the start.

Hiking in the Himalayas, visits to the northern lights in Norway and backpacking in India are some of the global experiences offered in the program, which is presented to prospective students via slick videos with pulsing soundtracks on the organisation’s website.

Similarly, Aardvark, another non-youth movement affiliated gap year, offers prospective students a bespoke experience. One that includes a choice of special interest add-ons including internships with Israeli design labels, start-ups and tech companies. For a career conscious Gen Z wanting to build a CV, the opportunity of learning to code, rather than learning to pick olives, must have appeal.

The marketing is enticing; fun, fast with a global outlook that celebrates the hedonistic vibe of modern Tel Aviv alongside the spirituality of ancient Jerusalem.

Will this message of a contemporary Jewish experience be enough to entice a new generation of young Australian Jews back to a place they’ve already ticked off the bucket list?

And if not, what happens when a generation of potential Jewish leaders forgoes rite-of-passage experiences in Israel, for whistle-stop visits instead?

For Jewish community organisations and leaders already battling to maintain Israel’s centrality in an increasingly multipolar Australia – this is a legacy they’ll be desperate to overcome.

Friday’s story, Why are Australian youth turning away from a gap year in Israel?, said Netzer Australia did not send anyone on Shnat in 2019. However, The Jewish Independent understands that five Netzer participants did go on Shnat last year, and that Netzer’s program has not been cut in half but that the minimum length is now five months, and can be longer if requested.

Photo: Noa Shaul at a AZYC seminar


About the author

Dash Lawrence and Daniella Silverstein

Dr Dashiel Lawrence has written extensively about Australia's Jewish diaspora. His books include Australia and Israel: A Diasporic, Political and Cultural Relationship (2015) and People of the Boot: The Triumphs and Tragedy of Australian Jews in Sport (2018). Daniella Silverstein has a Bachelor of Science and has worked as a correspondent for Plus61J in Jerusalem, before her recent return to Melbourne.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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