YU Hosts Panel Discussion on Iran, Israel and Assimilation

On October 22, Yeshiva University hosted a panel discussion organized by This World: Jewish Values Network, featuring President Richard M. Joel, Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens and philanthropist Sheldon Adelson. The forum, “Will Jews Exist? Iran, Assimilation and the Threat to Israel and Jewish Survival” was moderated by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, founder of This World, which runs a series of events that convene political and business leaders to discuss critical issues facing the Jewish community.

Boteach began the evening’s conversation by discussing the looming physical threats facing Israel from Iran.

“No more important issue confronts Israel than the imminent consequence of a nuclear Iran,” said Stephens, who contended in a Wall Street Journal column that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not prepared to take action against Iran. “I fear that Israel has walked into a corner… trying to placate the United States rather than look out for its own safety. The State of Israel should be thinking how credible the United States assurances are… I hope I’m wrong and Netanyahu means what he says and is prepared to act.”

Adelson, a close friend of Netanyahu, was more confident in the prime minister’s plans. “If it involves the safety of Israel and the Jewish people worldwide, Netanyahu would be prepared to do whatever it takes,” he said.

But the threats facing the Jewish people are not only physical; a very real spiritual threat from within the community is the “skyrocketing rate of intermarriage, and lack of Jewish pride and connection to the State of Israel,” said Boteach.

Boteach highlighted the recent Pew Research Center’s report on the state of American Judaism. “Assimilation is rampant in the United States and American Jewry is slowly disappearing,” he said, with two-thirds of Jews having no synagogue affiliation, a third lighting a Christmas tree and an overall intermarriage rate of 58 percent, jumping to 71 percent among non-Orthodox Jews. “We are doing a fine job of devastating ourselves.”

President Joel, a former president and international director of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, shared his views on the subject and how to help today’s Jewish youth reconnect to their roots.

“The problem with assimilation starts in the home, not on campus,” he said. “There is no sense of passion. This is the first generation in which being Jewish is an option, not a condition… Shame on all of us for taking a 4,000-year old story and neglecting it to death.”

Although hasbara [publicity] efforts on campus are helpful and trips to Israel through the Birthright Israel Foundation can give disconnected Jews their own stories, it’s not enough: “We spend tons of money on outreach, but it doesn’t make a difference,” said Boteach. “The problem is not our investment, but our model. While Birthright creates a Jewish identity, we have to keep that going.”

Adelson, who along with his wife, Miriam, is a major supporter of Birthright and a strong proponent of hasbara campaigns, believes that the situation is dire, but that the solution lies in building a sense of connection among Jews. “The one thing that Jews have been striving for was acceptance as a first-class citizen and assimilation into society. We finally got it, but it turned out to be our undoing,” he said. “If we don’t do something, in two generations, there won’t be any secular Jews left. Orthodox Jews will survive, but nobody else.”

To Adelson, “the most noble thing a Jew can do is be a mason, to mix the mortar that connects one generation of Jews to the next.”

President Joel echoed that sentiment and highlighted the role of Yeshiva University and Orthodox Judaism in helping to combat the threat of assimilation.

“Birthright strengthens the Jewish connection to Israel, but when those young people come back, we need to figure out how to launch them on their Jewish journeys,” said President Joel. “Our role is to ennoble and enable… We need to show our Judaism as something noble. It’s not just a transfer of information, but we need to instill in young people what their history and destiny is. How can we keep our Jewish story going? It’s about having vibrant Jewish communities. We need to have critical masses with passion and purpose to push our story forward… to serve our community and be upstanding role models representing Jewish values.”