Don’t tell my daughters I wrote this

Showing my children how to love Israel

DanElbaum image
The author’s daughters at the Kotel.

"I need to tell you something Abby told me, but you can't talk to her about it." 

My heart began to race as I looked up at my wife. Abby is our oldest, a college freshman away from home for the first time.  I nodded slowly. 

"She has gone to Hillel the last few Fridays and really likes it." 

I looked at my wife quizzically. "But that makes me happy," I sputtered. 

"She knows and that's why she doesn't want to talk to you about it." 

I told this story recently to my friend Adam Lehman, the CEO of Hillel International, and he smiled patiently. It was clear I was telling him a story he had heard before. He told me that he regularly begs parents not to tell their children to go to Hillel. There is nothing that is less likely to make them go. 

I thought about that conversation when I read the latest national studies that the younger a Jewish person is, the less likely they are to be affiliated with a synagogue, feel attachment to Israel, or be involved with Jewish causes. Like many of you, I ask myself what I can do to counter that trend. 

For my wife and me there has always been one answer--don't tell them to love Israel and Judaism. Show them how. 

My kids will never voluntarily read a column of mine or go to one of my speeches. But they still talk about our family's trip to Israel, and they can't wait to go back. Yes, it is expensive. So is Disney World. Your children need to see you in Israel with them so that it becomes part of their childhood memories and identity. They need to know what it tastes like to have really fresh pita bread or to argue with each other about whether to walk up Masada or take the cable car. Years later, when they confront negative images on social media, those images will be countered by something far more powerful--the feeling that this country, no matter how imperfect, is a part of their family. 

My children know some Hebrew. No, it is not easy. Yes, you can love Israel without speaking the language. But a few minutes a day on Duolingo or some other app will do more than hearing any speaker, even me, at your synagogue. Google funny words like "sababa" (yes, I know it's really Arabic) and "chai ba-seret" (which literally means "lives in a movie" and means "is in fantasyland") and marvel at the modern language that was revived and revivified. You will be amazed at how this can enhance your feelings of connection. 

And when you do talk about Israel, do not "live in the movies" and pretend Israel is perfect. For one thing, it isn't. Also, that fantasy isn't working--this kind of shallow idol worship in lieu of connection has set generations of kids up for failure when their expectations for Israel crash into reality. Talk about Israel's failures as well as its successes. Talk to them about the Palestinian narrative and the challenges in their day-to-day life. If you don't know about these things, take the time to learn about them.  Read English versions of Israeli newspapers from all ideologies and talk about what you read at dinner. It will make Israel more interesting for them. Let the first time they hear about Israel doing wrong be from you, rather than from someone who hates the Jewish state. 

In exchange for all the free advice I have just one request: if you know my girls, please don't tell them I wrote this. 

Dan Elbaum is head of North America at The Jewish Agency for Israel and the president and CEO of Jewish Agency International Development.  He and his wife Michele are the parents of two teen daughters and a Cavapoo named Ivy. They live in Deerfield.   

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