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Author Theodore Sasson to be 2014 Milton Firestone Lecturer

By Barbara Bayer


Theodore Sasson

Author, professor and researcher Theodore Sasson, Ph.D., will be the featured speaker at the 2014 Milton Firestone Lecture May 8 in the Social Hall of the Jewish Community Campus. Sponsored by the Jewish Community Center, the presentation begins at 7 p.m. and it will be followed by a book signing of his most recent book, “The New American Zionism,” published by NYU Press earlier this year. The lecture is free and open to the entire community. He will speak about the relationship between American Jews and Israel.

“The purpose of the Milton Firestone Memorial Lecture is to offer an informed perspective on a topic of critical importance to the Jewish community. Our relationship with Israel as a factor in and reflection of our sense of Jewish identity is one of the most important issues we face today. After reading his book and speaking to those who have heard him, I knew that Ted Sasson would fulfill the promise of the Lecture and was gratified to hear of his enthusiasm to visit Kansas City for the first time,” said Jill Maidhof, the JCC’s director of Jewish Life & Learning.

Milton Firestone served as the editor of The Chronicle until his untimely death in March 1983. The Milton Firestone Memorial Lecture event was created by his family and friends as a lasting tribute to his memory.

In a telephone interview last week, Sasson said his new book makes the case that American Jews are at least as engaged with Israel as they ever have been in the past.

Sasson is senior research scientist at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University. He is also professor of international studies at Middlebury College, visiting research professor of sociology at Brandeis University, and consultant to the Mandel Foundation.

The professor and researcher said one of the biggest differences in Jewish people’s relationship with Israel today than in the past is that their modes of philanthropic giving are changing.

“Giving has actually increased from about $1 billion in total in the 1990s to about $2 billion a year in the last five years,” he said.

Many times, Sasson said, we think giving has decreased to Israel because giving to Israel through the Jewish Federations system has declined over the years.

“Most donations in the 1960s and 1970s went through the United Jewish Appeal, today they go to hundreds of Israeli non-profit organizations. The proportion that goes through the Federations to the Jewish Agency for Israel is now only about 15 percent. It used to be about 80 percent,” he explained. 

Sasson said this shift in how Americans give funds to Israeli entities is a reflection of the shift for the more personal kinds of engagement Americans now have with Israel.

“Americans are becoming more pluralistic; as a result Israel is becoming more meaningful personally for American Jews, especially for the younger generation,” he said. “Even as we in the Jewish community increasingly argue with one another over our different views about Israeli policy and Israel.”

In his book Sasson said he made the point that the divisiveness that is sometimes evident in the Jewish community over Israel is not a reflection of disengagement or distancing as it has sometimes wrongly been described. He said it’s actually the opposite.

“It’s a reflection of a very high level of caring and concern across the board,” he said.

“The unity that formally characterized the community has given way to some rather sharp political differences. But they are a reflection of interesting concern and engagement and not distancing or alienation,” he said.

One of the interesting things he said he plans to discuss in his lecture is that many, many more American Jews are now visiting Israel than ever before.

“The Pew Survey that was just published in the fall showed that close to half of American Jews have visited Israel compared to about a quarter when a similar survey was conducted in 1990. Among the youngest group, the likelihood of having visited Israel is as high as among the oldest group. That’s a consequence of Birthright Israel and a whole variety of other initiatives to bring young adults to Israel. In fact 50,000 American Jewish young adults under the age of 30 now visit Israel in an educational program every year,” Sasson said.

Explaining the importance of the numbers further, Sasson said that at that rate, more than half of American Jews by the time they reach 30 will have visited Israel.

“There are between 90,000 and 100,000 American Jews born every year, so sending 50,000 on programs like Birthright means that if it continues at that rate, that’s rather revolutionary. In the 1980s about 10,000 participated a year. So there’s been about a 500 percent increase.”

Because of that increase in tourism, long-term study programs and internships, American Jews know more about Israel than they did in the past. Sasson said that can also be attributed to the proliferation of online news sources directly out of Israel, and “all of the other aspects of Israeli culture that are now accessible from a distance.”

“One of the consequences of knowledge is increasingly we tend to take sides, so our internal conversation can become quite heated and difficult. But this is an indication again of the central spot Israel holds in the lives of American Jews,” he said.

Professor Sasson also serves as co-principal investigator of evaluation research for the educational program Taglit-Birthright Israel, and as co-principal investigator for the Jewish Futures Project, a longitudinal study of Jewish young adults. He is a member of the board of directors of the Association for Israel Studies.

When he studies the effects of Birthright Israel on the Jewish population, he said they often compare people who applied to the program and didn’t get a spot to those who applied and did get a spot.

“We follow both groups in the year after the scheduled trips and then for several years after that. So the applicants are like the participants in every respect except they didn’t secure a spot on the trip and serve as our control group,” he explained.

Studies follow-up on such things as connections to Israel, connections to the Jewish community, participation in Jewish life like dating, marriage and raising kids.

“Across all of these aspects of engagement with the Jewish community the Birthright participants show higher levels of engagement. That’s the case really for those who had absolutely no background in Jewish life and all the way and including those who had substantial Jewish education and background.” 

Another project he works on is the Jewish Futures Project, a long-term study of Birthright.

“In that study we have a sample of 3,000 applicants to the program from the years 2001 to 2006. These are folks that applied in the first few years of the program who have been surveyed every year to find out how their lives have evolved,” he explained.

“One of the things that we’ve discovered is that the participants are about 50 percent more likely to marry a person who is Jewish or who becomes Jewish than the applicants that didn’t go on the trip. The rate of marriage to a Jewish spouse or someone who becomes Jewish is about 72 percent among the program participants and about 50 percent or a little lower among the applicants that didn’t go. That’s a very substantial impact on a very significant decision. The consequences of that, we see that the participants who raise kids are more likely to raise them as Jewish and provide a Jewish education than the applicants who didn’t get spots on the trip.”