Rachel Jones spent the past week in Washington, DC, at the first annual conference for the new progressive Jewish organization J Street. She was passing out literature for Meretz USA, an American nonprofit that supports the platform of one of Israel's most left-wing political parties.
Politically and socially, Meretz USA is a far cry from Jones's upbringing as a devout Jew in small-town Iowa. The only story Jones, now 24, heard while growing up in her tiny community--a story she now calls "right wing"--was that Israel's borders included Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights, and that Jewish identity was staked on the country's defense.
Her transformation from a conservative Zionist to a J Street volunteer is a product of the two years she spent in Israel. "I came to it from such a place of love and admiration and desire, and I wanted to just be completely embraced by my homeland, and all these romantic and idealistic pictures of what Israel was supposed to be for me," she said. But instead of finding her "homeland," Jones found the 2006 Lebanon war. The violence she witnessed deeply challenged her religious faith and her confidence in Israel's actions.
The conflict between a love of Israel and a desire for peace was the dominant theme of J Street's much-anticipated inaugural conference, held October 25-28 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington. The conference hosted an unexpectedly large crowd of more than 1,500 mostly left-leaning Jewish activists. At the opening plenary session on Sunday night, Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street's executive director, stated that J Street's role was to "widen the tent" of positions on Israel that can be called "pro-Israel." "In this room of over 1,000 people there are doubtless 1,000 opinions on the issues," he announced, and all the opinions were welcome--so welcome, in fact, that the leadership of J Street has been slow to solidify the new lobby's stances on certain crucial questions. J Street supports a two-state solution in Israel, one based on 1967 borders, and it wants to take a "pragmatic" approach to peace that avoids the static conservatism of AIPAC; but it has not gotten behind any specific timetables or policies.
Throughout four days of discussion panels, the conference covered topics like the Israeli settlements, Iran, human rights and the relationship of various US constituencies to Israel. In spite of some notable absences--Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren declined his invitation--there were nearly 100 speakers on hand, including left-leaning Israeli Knesset members, former US Ambassador Martin Indyk, US Representative Robert Wexler, Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, Senator Chuck Hagel and National Security Advisor Jim Jones. Even Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, who has been publicly critical of J Street, decided in a change of heart to speak at the conference.
Beyond the hard politics, the J Street conference was also a fledgling effort to help define the way Rachel Jones and her rising generation of American Jews will identify and engage with Judaism and Israel. Davidi Gilo, president of J Street's board of directors, had hardly opened the conference on Sunday night before he stressed, "I want to extend a special welcome to our young generation...who are seeking a voice that allows them to stand taller when speaking about Israel on campuses." Along with 250 college students who were there to participate in a parallel conference organized by J Street U (J Street's campus activism branch), there were dozens of twenty-something political staffers, think-tank interns and bloggers scattered throughout the crowd.
The few hundred young faces were a welcome sign for J Street leadership and other representatives of older generations of Jews. In the past few years, studies have shown that youth engagement with Judaism and Israel is declining. And as Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund, cautioned the audience, "This is a time when many Jews, especially young ones, are walking away from a life that involves Israel." In many cases, younger Jews represent what Ben-Ami calls a new "silent majority," who have felt until now that voicing critical opinions of Israel would expose them to harassment and accusations of anti-Semitism or self-loathing. "Young Jews have no forum to question," Lauren Barr, a college junior, observed. "And so they walk away."
Rabbi Andy Bachman, an opening session speaker, dated the generational divide to 1967, when the Six Day War initiated Israel's occupation of the West Bank. "Whether you were born before or after 1967 really matters here," he said. "If you think about the generations that have grown up since 1967, they see an Israel that is defined only as an occupying nation."
Sarah Turbow, a senior at Yale, and Aimee Mayer, a senior at the University of Maryland, both agreed. "I saw the [Palestinian] wall before I saw the Wailing Wall," Turbow told me. In spite of her family's close connection to early Israeli history, Turbow's view of Israel has to incorporate both pride and informed criticism of Israel's actions during her lifetime. Mayer, who is the president of her campus's J Street U chapter and a member of the national student board, thinks this is why younger Jews are increasingly joining progressive campus groups. "They see it as a human rights issue," she said. "Our generation grew up talking about tolerance and diversity far more than our parents' generation did."
J Street U trains student leaders in old advocacy techniques like letter-writing campaigns, campus dialogues and educational programming; its current approach to youth engagement relies heavily on the hope that new interest can be generated for old political tactics. But can letter-writing campaigns keep up with the Twitterverse? The number of next-gen Jews who registered to attend the J Street conference was in the hundreds; but thousands of young people followed live-blogging from Jewschool.com  writers, or tracked the Twitter feed by searching for J Street's hashtag (a number used to tag any Tweets that relate to a certain subject). Ben-Ami opened an audience discussion session by projecting J Street's Twitter feed onto large screens and inviting audience members to live-Tweet their thoughts. J Street has benefited from the blogosphere's interest in the new lobby, but it is unclear whether the exposure has materialized in the form of new membership or political mobilization.
Jewish media outlets like Jewcy.com, Jewschool.com and JDub Records are creating forums for Jewish discussion where traditional institutions fall short. Jewcy.com--which Lilit Marcus, the web magazine's 27-year-old editor, described as "like the Huffington post except Jewish"--was an official media partner at the conference; its involvement enabled tens of thousands of viewers to watch live webcasts of the keynote speeches on its site. It also set up a table at the conference where participants could use FlipCams and free laptops to do citizen reporting on Jewcy.com.
Marcus thinks the Internet is providing community for young Jews who feel its absence. "I grew up in Raleigh," Marcus said. "And I was lucky enough that I came of age in a generation where we had Internet access, and I was able to go online and find sites like Jewcy... And I finally felt like, there may not be a community where I live, but that doesn't mean I have to be outside of this." Jacob Harris, the 29-year-old COO of the Jewish record and event company JDub, thinks that younger Jews are plugging into a culture that allows them to draw their identity from as many sources as they choose. He noted that while young Jews' parents and grandparents more often found their group identity defined by physical spaces--whether at the local Jewish Community Center or the synagogue--younger people "can Twitter at this conference and feel Jewish, or feel connected to Israel."
J Street has begun to embrace this changing definition of community, and it has already served as a forum to allow diverse people to meet and share ideas. To Rachel Jones, J Street felt like home. "This is definitely the first time I've felt embraced by a community that feels similarly to me," she said, "about what Israel is supposed to be, about what it is now, and about what it can be in the future." For young Jews sifting through the complex landscape of political identities, it can be good to have a place, physical or digital, to go.