HomeJuly 2012The Real Issue

The Real Issue

The controversies at UCI in the recent years pulled at our hearts.  Those of us who were on campus that fateful evening when radical Arab students shouted down the Israeli ambassador, Michael Oren, can’t forget that chilling experience.  It’s doubtful that we will see a rerun of that tragic event.  The Jewish community is prepared to prevent another occurrence.  The prosecution by the DA serves as a warning to radical Arab groups, like the Muslim Student Union, that there is a price to pay for outrageous behavior.  Jewish Federation & Family Services has made a major achievement by strengthening the academic bonds between UCI and Israeli universities.
A few dozen Arab activists are not our principal problem.  The real issue is strengthening the Jewish identity of students, many of whom have little Jewish education or experience.  It’s not a job that gets headlines.  It’s much easier to raise money when you say “we need to stop those radical Arabs maligning Israel.”  But we should not fool ourselves; this is the most important issue on the agenda of the Jewish community about UCI and other local universities.
It’s during these crucial years that young people mature into adults; they set themselves on their trajectory in life.  They launch their careers and begin considering marriage and family.  Sadly, the great majority have had little Jewish education — some Hebrew school, that “Bar Mitzvah” moment, followed by an exit from synagogue life.  While they might he highly educated in many areas, few know the difference between Rashi, Rambam and Rabban Gamliel.  Almost none can read a page of Talmud or debate the basics of Jewish philosophy.  Except for a small number who have received a day school education, few have an understanding the great issues of life from a Jewish perspective.
During this transition in life, when they become independent, it’s essential that we provide college students opportunities for exploring their heritage, to take a hard look at Judaism and how it has contemporary meaning.  There is no question that there have been major strides in this direction.  Birthright has brought thousands to Israel.  It’s a remarkable program, but it’s short and the memory can fade in time.  Our priority as a community must be to invest our resources in programs that will enhance Jewish identity of students here in the community.  When they come back from Birthright, all charged up, there will be opportunities to harness that new-found energy.  Supporting Jewish educational and experiential programs will engage those students not involved Jewish life on campus.
Of course, we need to support Israel advocacy.  Let’s ask an important question: is it better to spend some money on programs that boost Israel’s image to the broader campus community.  Or should we invest more money and resources into creating a cadre of committed Jewish students who will be ambassadors to the whole campus community?  In the long run these students will become vital members of a future Jewish community.
We can’t lose these students.  They are struggling in making choices for their future in a complex and changing world.  The timeless values of Judaism can serve as a compass for them.  If they discover the great beauty of Jewish tradition, it will transform the way they see themselves as Jews and their connection to Israel.  Let’s put our money where we get the biggest bang for the buck.


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