In 17 newspapers around the world, people were introduced to an opportunity to inspire Jewish youth to explore the meaning of Theodor Herzl today. First announced in the Jewish News Syndicate, this innovative essay competition also included a variety of programs and activities that educators, youth movements and community leaders could use in order to introduce their students to a leader who, for some, has become irrelevant or completely unknown.

Everyone proclaims that youth are the future, and that education is crucial to social advancement. However, in a world in which mainstream schooling and academia increasingly are being hijacked by bias, propaganda and even lies, it is clear that Jewish leaders should focus more on increasing the Jewish literacy of Jewish youth. When young Jews know more about their heritage, they will feel more inspired to work towards uniting the Jewish people and supporting the state of Israel.

After eight months of promotion and collaboration, the response from around the world was evidence of the need for the efforts of “Israel Forever” to combat apathy among Jewish youth by giving them opportunities to learn more about the history of their people in engaging ways. The potential for meaningful engagement aroused the interest even of Limmud U.K., which requested a delay in the deadline so that their educators and youth could sufficiently explore the depth of content and share their perspective from a well-rooted understanding of Herzl’s role in their own Jewish identity and that of the future.

Dozens of submissions were received from Australia, England, South Africa, Canada and the United States. The esteemed panel of judges selected the finalists, each sharing a different perspective and approach, demonstrating the range of ways in which young people relate to Jewish history, identity and leadership. But it was Raya Treibicz of Toronto who garnered the public vote and was awarded first prize.

Raya’s passionate and insightful essay stressed that the biggest problem facing the Jewish people today is not external in nature, as in the case of anti-Semitism, but rather internal, as in those of assimilation, intermarriage, Jewish anti-Israel sentiment and a lack of Jewish literacy.

Treibicz emphasized that Jewish organizations ought to focus their efforts more on youth and engage them with material that is interesting to them and promotes growth. She further mentions that Diaspora Jews feel significant tensions because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which polarizes support for Israel, and this burden falls especially heavily on the shoulders of Jewish youth.

The key lies in the youth aspect of this competition. Herzl himself wrote about the importance of youth engagement in Zionism, saying in his book Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), that the “young, whom we need, … who irresistibly draw on the old, will transform rational motives into enthusiasm.”

Herzl makes it clear that Jews must engage their youth to protect the future of their people, that youth draw inspiration and direction from their predecessors, and that the youth are the ones who will actualize the dreams of the Jewish people.

Another finalist, Ethan Karlovsky, mentions in his essay the unifying quality of Zionism. He explains how Zionism has broken the “superficial Jewish caste system of religious vs. secular, Ashkenazi vs. Sephardi, etc.”

The Diaspora Jewish community is severely divided along religious, political or ethnic lines. Zionism is the most powerful unifying force for the Jewish people today because every kind of Jew has a home in the State of Israel.

Herzl is widely celebrated in the Jewish world as the father of the State of Israel and a pioneer of political Zionism. However, as David Matlow, who worked with Israel Forever to establish this annual essay competition, explains, “Many young Jews know nothing more than his [Herzl’s] name.”

It is important to encourage youth to engage with past leaders of their people who made their current way of life possible. Many Jewish youths take the existence of Israel or a Jewish state for granted because they have never known a world without it. Jewish youths will come to appreciate Israel more once they understand more of its history, and just how difficult and long the process was that resulted in the creation of the modern state.

Herzl laid the foundation for the creation of the State of Israel, and his words and ideas are profoundly applicable to the lives of Jews today. However, many Jews, especially youth, have never taken the time to read his work and explore the lasting legacy of his ideas on Zionism and anti-Semitism.

The best way to familiarize yourself with a topic is by writing about it because it requires that you first learn the background or history of the person or event. To write an essay, you must then internalize those ideas, form your own opinions about the topic and back up your arguments with evidence.

This is what Jewish organizations must do to encourage young Jews to actively engage with their heritage and incorporate knowledge of Jewish history, literature, religion, etc. into their Jewish identity: Jewish literacy. By helping young Jews increase their Jewish literacy, they can gain a deeper, more personal connection to their people and their land. To that end, Israel Forever also offers a wide range of resources and activities to strengthen the connection of Jews young and old, all over the world, to their history, heritage and homeland.

Nathan Ashner, an intern for the Israel Forever Foundation, is currently a junior at Brandeis University majoring in Global Studies and minoring in Judaic studies. 

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