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December 7, 2021 12:18 pm

Why Israel Is Critical for Creating the Next Generation of Jewish Leaders

avatar by Lindsey Heller and Jennifer Handel


Remains of a 2000-year-old building recently excavated near the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Photo: Yaniv Berman / Israel Antiquities Authority

Spending an extended amount of time in Israel is critical for creating the next generation of Jewish leaders.

Our own paths to becoming Jewish organizational professionals look nothing alike, but our experiences in Israel drove the process that brought us to where we are today. We recently spoke at a JFNA Changemakers Fellowship event to urge other young Jews to follow similar paths.

Our time in Israel inspired us to pursue careers in the Jewish world, taught us about the diversity of the Jewish experience, and empowered us to advocate for Israel using our personal insight.

Lindsey grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, in a Conservative Jewish family. She attended Jewish day school and camp, and her family talked about Israel at the dinner table. In college at Syracuse University, she participated in AIPAC and started a branch of TAMID, an organization that connects students to Israeli companies. After earning a bachelor’s degree in accounting and business/management, she wanted to take some time to figure out her career path, so she interned with the Israeli government for 10 months via Masa’s Israel Government Fellows program.

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Jennifer grew up in North Babylon in Long Island, New York. She went to a Jewish preschool, and then had minimal Jewish involvement and knowledge until college, when she joined the six-person Hillel at SUNY Cortland. After she completed her master’s degree, a non-Jewish friend convinced her to go on Birthright Israel. She subsequently staffed multiple Birthright trips and eventually signed up for the first cohort of Masa’s 10-month Masa Israel Teaching Fellows program. And now, Jennifer is preparing for her next steps as the Director of Israel Engagement with the Jewish Federation of Atlanta come January.

In Israel, through our Masa programs — an initiative founded by the Jewish Agency and the government of Israel — we first encountered the full diversity of the Jewish people. We met young Jews from all over the world, and learned what it was like to grow up Jewish in France, Argentina, and the UK.

Being surrounded by Jews that identified to their heritage in different ways and through varying customs was an exhilarating experience. Immersing ourselves in Israel’s wealth of Jewish diversity reminded us that our Jewish nationhood transcends differences of belief and practice. And it motivated us to try to attain this sense of overarching Jewish peoplehood back home in the US.

According to the 2020 Pew survey of Jewish Americans, Jews of different denominations feel little in common with each other. To bridge this divide between communities, we need spaces that bring us together, where we can have a constructive and respectful dialogue. In our current roles at Hillel and the UJA, we try to cultivate these conversations. Jews don’t have to agree on every issue, but we need to try to understand where other sectors are coming from, and respect the way others believe.

Regardless of our personal positions, we each need to ask ourselves: As a Jew, what is my responsibility towards Judaism?

Becoming intimately acquainted with Israel also equipped us to advocate for the Jewish state in a world that unfairly vilifies it. This is an important ability for every Jew — not just Jewish leaders — because regardless of your involvement, you will inevitably be thrust into the role of spokesperson for Israel at some point in your life.

It is near impossible to understand the complexity of the situation in Israel until you have spent time there, meeting the country’s diverse population and exploring difficult questions on the ground. Israel is home to people of many races, ethnicities, and religions, and each person has a story. Having an extended, firsthand experience in Israel helped us form our own, nuanced perspectives, putting us in a unique position to contribute to the conversation and discuss Israel from a place of strength and knowledge.

Today’s young Jews emphasize exploration and questioning — a tendency that Judaism embraces. We must also engage in a respectful, open-minded dialogue with Jews who believe differently. We need to realize that it is not a contradiction to be part of the Jewish family while disagreeing with certain choices that other family members make.

The Jewish community needs young, passionate Jewish leaders who represent the full diversity of the Jewish people. The best way to develop these leaders is to encourage more young Jews to embark on long-term, immersive experiences in Israel, where they can form educated opinions based on firsthand experience. Our own experiences in Israel shaped our views not only towards Israel, but towards our Judaism and our fellow Jews. They inspired us to devote our careers to this nation we love, in all its multifarious, complicated glory.

Lindsey Heller is a Masa Alum, and works as a Manager of Overseas Missions and Speakers Bureau for the UJA-Federation of New York.

Jennifer Handel is a Masa Alum, and works as the assistant director for the Stony Brook Hillel of New York.

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