My sister-in-law is one of the ten thousand year-round residents of Nantucket. In the summer, the population there reaches 70,000 people. It wasn’t long ago that we felt the same type of increase in Jerusalem’s tourist population. It would begin at Passover and a month-and-a-half later the festival of Shavuot would bring an increase of pilgrims, beginning the summer influx. By the first week in July, my wife and I would avoid going downtown.
While we would avoid the crowds until after the High Holiday season, we would enjoy being in Judaism’s center and the opportunity to reconnect with scores of visitors who called on us. Throughout each summer, during holidays and winter break, we looked forward to visits by friends and family living in America who chose to renew their connection with the Jewish people, heritage and land by visiting Israel. We came to expect regular annual trips from our home synagogues bringing familiar faces from New Jersey. We welcomed confirmation classes and the hometown bar/bat mitzvah celebrants from our native communities. Often we would be their guests and discuss our life in the Jewish homeland and our first-hand experiences of living here. We exchanged ideas and learned from a dialog possible only during such meaningful and unique learning experiences as an Israel visit.
Slowly, these trips became less regular. It is rare nowadays that I see a visitor in Jerusalem who is not part of a Jewish professional mission or who is not visiting an immediate family member living here. Even over the course of this winter break, of the few friends who did plan to come, some canceled their trips because of pressure from friends and family.
My first trips to Israel included visiting the ancient walls of Jericho, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s grave outside of Bethlehem. Since then, these and other Jewish landmarks in the territories have been omitted from itineraries due to the Palestinian unrest. Consequently they have dwindled in importance in the eyes of most tourists. As visitors came to learn about Israel throughout the last fifteen years, they learned very little of these landmarks and felt little connection with them.
A similar and broader effect has resulted from the lack of tourists coming to Israel recently. Today I rarely have a chance to meet Jewish American teenagers with the Jerusalem landscape as our background. No longer do we exchange ideas as we used to do. It saddens me that first-hand knowledge has been replaced by ignorance, emotional ties with apathy, and dialog with assumptions. The experiences which created a lifetime bond between Jewish American visitors and their historic homeland have evaporated. A new generation is coming of age without a personal connection to Israel or to the people who inhabit our land.
Those of us in Israel feel this. Not only are Americans denying themselves the opportunities of experiencing Israel, but, by removing themselves from the scene, they leave Israelis without a partner for dialog. As an American I know the importance that these trips play in developing an understanding of what it is to be a Jew. As an Israeli, I feel the rift between American and Israeli Jews is widening because there are fewer encounters between us.
Make no mistake; in Israel we are grateful that the American Jewish community has launched an effort to buy “blue and white” and to bring Israeli merchants to the United States. The American Jewish community has been very supportive of Israel during times of crisis. However material support is no substitute for being here. As fewer American Jews come to Israel, their connection to Israel lessens. The long-term consequences of this are already taking effect. We are missing them.
I no longer have the opportunity to welcome the scores of friends and family members who visited me in Jerusalem every year. I no longer have the insightful discussions during which we would exchange viewpoints and meaningful discourse. Teenagers are no longer coming to experience Israel.
Israelis’ physical distance from our American brethren has become more permanent and left us feeling more remote. We are feeling alone and are aware of our increasingly iniquitous relationship with our American brothers and sisters, like the relative who is an outcast, always invited but never visited.
I’ve had to learn to continue my life in Israel while terrorism remains undefeated. For Americans, Europeans, as well as for us in Israel, this threat does not constitute a temporary crisis. It is a new reality that stretches across the globe. I feel the changes all around me and from a distance American Jews seem to have responded to terrorism by removing themselves and their children from experiencing Israel. And we are missing the teenagers.