Shalom and welcome to the first in a series of blog posts from the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA). The series will be dedicated to reflections on the Eisendrath International Exchange NFTY High School in Israel (EIE) as it enters its sixth decade continuing to teach and transform Reform youth from the United States in Israel. Each post will be written by alumni of the program spanning the past half-century with the hope of exposing our readers to the far reaching effects and long lasting influences of the program. It is our hope that the entire movement be made aware of the thousands who have spent high school semesters in Israel with the Reform movement and the generations of Reform Jews who have engaged with Israel and Jewish identity in this unique program. As the incoming President of ARZA and a former EIE student and faculty member, it is an honor to inaugurate this series with my own reflections.
In the spring of 1994 I arrived in Israel for the single most formative experience of my life. This was my first time in Israel and I couldn’t wait to fully immerse myself in the Hebrew language, Jewish study and to have as many “Rak B’Yisrael – Only in Israel” experiences as possible. As I reflect back nearly two decades later I would like to share a few of the enduring lessons that have left a lasting impression and have inspired me to fulfill a vision of Reform Zionism.
“דַּע, מֵאַיִן בָּאתָ וּלְאָן אַתָּה הוֹלֵךְ – Know from where you came and where you are going ”
(פרקי אבות ג:א – Pirke Avot 3:1)
My teacher Baruch Kraus, taught that no matter what our personal observances or theological worldviews were, there was no plausible excuse for Jewish illiteracy. “Knowledge is the key,” he explained, and so we embarked on a 4 month course through 4,000 years of Jewish history from our foundations as a people through our trials and travails upon which our current situation both in Israel and abroad is built. We attempted to answer the question ‘How did we get to where we are today?’ examining the events, personalities and major literary contributions that make up the Jewish bookshelf. Each class seemed to be a puzzle piece fitting in to the vast mosaic that is the Jewish people and helping me to piece together our narrative. I learned that to be Jewish was to connect with Am Yisrael – the people of Israel, Torat Yisrael – the Torah of Israel, and Eretz Yisrael – the Land of Israel; and over the semester we were fascinated to watch how those three pillars manifested in Medinat Yisrael – the State of Israel.
Among the most valuable lessons I received on EIE was the Hebrew language and its importance. The streets of Jerusalem were my personal classroom, as I gleaned from the writings on the walls and simply refused to speak English. It quickly became clear to me that language was a carrier of culture and I began collecting examples of how our ancient Jewish culture is passed on through the Hebrew language, and of course how different a society of Hebrew speakers was from where I grew up.
While I was inspired by many different time periods and stories, it was the romantic nostalgia for the pioneers of the 2nd Aliyah that truly touched me. I was particularly astounded by those daring ones left Europe and followed their ideology to build and to be built in the Land of Israel. Feeling frustrated that I wasn’t born a century earlier I began to ask the question of what might be the modern day equivalent to that pioneering spirit. As the swamps are all dried, and the State of Israel is firmly established I asked and still ask where does Zionism go from here? The answer of course is that while the State of Israel has been established our work is not done. We now have to focus our attention on the soul of the state and actively engage in forming and shaping the Jewish identity of our society – which has been on my mind since my days on EIE.
One can learn Jewish history anywhere. However, I came to believe that location is important. During EIE we used texts as captions for the landscape and the sights and sounds of each site made our texts come alive. More than the tiyulim or field trips, our daily excursions around town, bus rides and explorations through Mahane Yehuda (Jerusalem’s open air market) left me with a lasting connection and a sense of belonging. The discovery of Israel’s Jewish public culture – where Jewish life is the mainstream normative culture – taught me the added value of living as a Jew in a Jewish society encompassing ethnicity, nationality and religion.
I knew that upon returning to Chicago at the end of the semester it would only be a matter of time until I returned to Israel. A decade later as I arrived on aliyah I began teaching Jewish History to EIE students where I aspired to provide students with similar experiences to mine and reveled in watching them discover similar things that I had. Now, two decades after arriving for EIE, I am still ideologically motivated and invigorated by the task at hand: “.לבנות ולהבנות בה” “To build” – to continue to build the Reform movement in Israel, directly affecting and redefining what it means to be Jewish in the Jewish state. “And to be built by her”- to work towards an encompassing vision of Jewish life for the People, Torah and Land of Israel.
I can safely say that had it not been for my experience in high school, I would not be where or who I am today. While today’s EIE has evolved from years prior, I can only say that what the Jewish world needs is more EIE alumni, more knowledgeable Jews, and a stronger connection between our movement in the U.S. with our movement in Israel. As Shir l’Shalom, the Song for Peace teaches: “אל תגידו יום יבוא הביאו את היום – כי לא חלום הוא” – “Don’t say that the day will come, bring the day for it is not a dream.”
Josh Weinberg is the incoming president of ARZA. He is a rabbinical student in HUC-JIR’s Israeli rabbinic program, and will be ordained this fall.