Recently, the Meir Harel Yeshiva conducted its annual visit to the Diaspora. During the trip, they visited Religious-Zionist communities in Toronto, Miami, New Jersey, New York City and the Five Towns of Nassau County. They met with the rabbis and leaders of these communities, as well as with Meir Harel graduates working as Zionist emissaries in different communities and serving as Rabbis and teachers.
Most important, the yeshiva representatives spoke with 12th graders about a range of subjects. These topics included coming to Israel for a year after high school, learning in yeshivas together with Israeli students, getting to know the Land of Israel, experiencing Israel first-hand, understanding the issues and conflicts the nation faces, learning Hebrew and serving in the IDF.
Over the course of the visit, two challenging issues came up. These issues are not new, but have intensified over recent years.
The first problem is a disturbing trend of Diaspora communities distancing themselves from Zionism.
Previously, a major part of these communities' Jewish identity was expressed in Hebrew studies and identification with Israel. However, the focus is slowly changing to the communities' internal challenges as Diaspora communities.
This doesn't, however, detract from the fact that if there is an emergency in Israel, these communities will be active and raise contributions for Israel and the IDF.
However, most of the educational institutions no longer require the students to learn Hebrew.
As a result, a large majority of "gap year" students who come to Israel are doing so in separate educational frameworks created for Diaspora students, rather than in a class that is part of an Israeli yeshiva or midrasha. These frameworks do not teach Hebrew, nor do they provide students with day-to-day contact with Israelis their own age. Additionally, participants have no opportunity to be part of Israeli life or to understand the Israeli experience.
Instead, their visits around Israel are closer to tourist sightseeing than to the ideal of learning about Israel and understanding the lives of Israel's Jews. As a result, students return home after doing a year of "tourist traveling" in Israel and no more.
Incidentally, these private institutions are very profitable, with parents spending around $30,000 per year, or approximately 20,000 NIS per month, much more than it would cost them to be part of an Israeli institution. There are new ones every year as the number of students coming for a gap year increases.
Some parents are satisfied with this arrangement, since if their sons and daughters learn in Israeli frameworks, they might decide to stay in Israel, or to serve in the IDF. This is a common result when students are in Israeli institutions.
What these parents don't understand is even though this detachment from Israel "pays off" in the short term, it is liable to increase assimilation rates in the long term.
Since the graduates of these programs are the next generation's leaders, the end result of this detachment will be a leadership which has no significant connection with Israel and does not sense that its roots are there. Instead, it focuses almost exclusively on its own community issues.
This is an extremely dangerous outcome, since both the communities of Israel and the Diaspora are becoming distanced. From a long-term strategic point of view, in about another decade this is liable to create a very significant separation, possibly eroding reciprocal responsibility and support.
In our meetings, the mutual need for connection was emphasized. Israel's Jews need the connection with the Diaspora Jews no less than Diaspora Jews need the connection with Israel's Jews.
It was very encouraging, therefore, to meet students from Rambam Mesivta in Woodmere and Hebrew Academic in Miami Beach, two institutions which instill solid Zionist values. These institutions are proud of students who come to Israel to study in Israeli frameworks, and support those who choose to remain in Israel and serve in the IDF.
The second issue that surfaced during our visit is the issue of "lone soldiers" in the IDF. In every community, there are students who feel a great drive and pride to serve in the IDF, and they come to Israel for that purpose.
During our visits, we heard harsh criticism about the situation of "lone soldiers" especially those from the religious community, who, it was charged, are not handled properly. The fact is that there is a lack of understanding of religious lone soldiers' unique needs. In more than a few cases, instead of benefit being gained from their desire to volunteer, the result could be negative.
Among possible solutions for this are appropriate preparation for military service, similar to that which Israelis get, as well as an effective framework for the support and guidance of observant lone soldiers during their service.