On a visit from Israel, Elisheva Mazya attended a conference at Harvard University that examined what it means to be Jewish in the United States.
She was struck by the irony: While American Jews are worried about their future, there may be a greater danger of the erosion of Jewish identity in Israel.
“There, especially in Jerusalem, the younger generation has stopped thinking about their Jewish identity,” said Mazya in a Nov. 15 talk at the Scotch Plains offices of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey. “They associate Judaism with the ultra-Orthodox, and they don’t feel connected to that.”
Mazya is the CEO of Ruach Hadasha, or New Spirit, an organization that is trying to tackle that problem in Jerusalem. It hopes to reverse an exodus of young people flooding out of the city, driven out not only by high housing costs and poor job prospects but a growing haredi, or fervently Orthodox, population they consider alienating and intolerant.
Aimed at an estimated 42,000 students who attend higher education institutions in Jerusalem, New Spirit aims to build a sense of community and commitment so those students will be encouraged to put down roots.
“When you see your own kind in the streets, you feel more at home,” Mazya said.
The Central federation this year provided a grant of $35,000 to help fund New Spirit’s mechina, or preparatory, program. The first nondenominational undertaking of its kind, it offers a gap-year program with living expenses covered, so young people can stay in Jerusalem to study and do community service for a year before going to the army.
About 80 applied for the program this year, Mazya said; 24 were accepted — but they hope to see major growth.
The organization has drawn together about 18 “young communities,” with most people under the age of 30, and helped them find housing near one another in the city’s poorer — and more affordable — neighborhoods. They get together for religious study and monthly Shabbat dinners and team up to help the communities they live in. Projects include children’s after-school programs, programs for youth at risk, environmental projects, concerts, and holiday celebrations.
‘A different country’
Mazya, 30, a slim blonde who still looks more like a student than an executive, came to Jerusalem eight years ago. She was from Nahalal, a town in Israel’s north, and planned to head to Tel Aviv as soon as she finished her studies at The Hebrew University. She had her sights set on becoming a journalist, and the modern metropolis on the coast seemed a much more welcoming option than the ancient city, with its increasingly powerful religious groups.
“We call it ‘the State of Tel Aviv,’” she said. “It’s like a different country. If that’s all what Israel is about, it would be no big concern if the country stops being a Jewish state.”
But Jerusalem gradually worked its magic on her. She described how she came to care more and more intensely about what happens to the city, and to see Jerusalem as crucial to Jewish continuity.
“Jerusalem is the heart not just of Israel, but of the Jewish world,” she said. “If Jerusalem stops being a place where Jews of all kinds can feel at home, I think there is a real danger about the future of the Jewish people.”
She and a group of friends established New Spirit as volunteers. Now they have major funding, one third from the Israeli government and municipalities, one third from Israeli foundations and philanthropists, and one third from outside sources like Central and five other American federations.
Mazya herself, initially reluctant to leave the inner city, moved to Kiryat Yovel, a neighborhood that has now become an “in” place for young couples. Mechina participants are housed there.
New Spirit also organizes internships to help students and graduates get a foot in the local employment market. Of the 1,500 interns who came through the program in its first six years, 57 percent received real job offers afterward, and 66 percent are still working in Jerusalem, she said.
Amy Cooper, the federation’s associate executive vice president and director of financial resource development, made a half-joking suggestion that got a ready nod from Mazya. “There are cities in the U.S. where Jews are leaving, too,” she said. “Maybe you should give a seminar for American leaders on how to establish communities like that, to help keep young Jews from leaving.”