Learning to Love? Exploring Our Role in Israel Engagement
by Rabbi Mara Young
Monday, July 22, 2013 was Tu B’Av, the Jewish day of love. How special that I spent it in conversation with other rabbis and educators, all of whom love our Jewish youth and Jewish education so much. On that day, the URJ hosted a conversation on Israel engagement designed to help us explore new and different approaches to integrating Israel throughout our educational work with the young people in our congregation.
During the course of the conversation, we shared our own personal experiences in and around Israel. We learned from Zion Ozeri, of “The Jewish Lens,” about the ways photography can begin a conversation about such a multi-dimensional topic, one with so many lenses (pun intended). We unpacked case studies – both successful and challenging – focused on Israel programming. Finally, we challenged one another and dreamed out loud.
Most important, I came away with a new understanding of two popular but potentially misdirected phrases: fostering a “Love of Israel” and practicing “Israel Engagement.” Each is such a romantic phrase, and although many do consider Israel a lover, others consider her a conflict-ridden topic they don’t want to go near. How great, then, that we came together on Tu B’Av to consider the Jewish state. On a day that promotes loving partnership, the question was on the table: how are we meaningful partners with Israel?
First we must consider this “love” business. What does it mean that we want our youth to have a “love of Israel?” We talk a lot about love in Judaism. Love God with all your heart, love Torah, love your neighbor as yourself. But that’s a lot to command of people, especially because it’s difficult to tell someone to love something. Love is felt; love is experienced.
We must ask the same questions about “Israel engagement.” What does it mean to engage with a country? Does it mean we want our teens to visit? Are we content for them to learn about it, or will it suffice for them merely to think about Israel every so often? Again, I think the answered lies in “experience.”
If our youth experience Israel, perhaps then we get closer to having a meaningful relationship with the many Israels our tradition loves: Medinat Yisrael (the modern-day country of Israel), Am Yisrael (the people of Israel), Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) and Torat Yisrael (the teaching of Israel). If our young people believe that what happens in Israel affects them socially, emotionally and politically, then they will feel even more connected to the Jewish state. Experiencing Israel is most easily done through trips and partnerships with Israelis, but we also can feel Israel creatively in our midst, without ever getting on an El Al flight—through arts, culture, and social action.
But to what end? Dr. Lisa Grant of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, one of the participants in the Tu B’Av conversation, stressed that Israel is an integral component of the Jewish experience and a part of a holistic Jewish education. Our liturgy, our history, and our literature are full of allusions to Israel in its many forms. She’s right, of course, and to engage with Israel is to engage with the full Jewish self. What this engagement looks like, however, depends on the person and the community in which he or she lives. If that experience eventually leads to advocacy, the support truly will come from a place of passion, a place of conviction, a place of love.
Now I’m left to consider what this conversation will look like in my own congregation. We’re lucky to have a highly motivated Israel Committee that is driving full-throttle into the year ahead. The committee has lined up speakers and courses aimed to get adults to explore their own connections to Israel. At each age level, the tools for this exploration are unique. For teens, we need to think in terms of face-time with Israeli teens, which means greater use of technology. We’ll also need to incorporate modern arts and culture and an honest discussion of the current issues. Young family programming is more complex because kids have just started to make an acquaintance with Israel. Parents come in with baggage of all kinds—some good, some not so good. How can we get them to all learn together?
I don’t have an answer yet, but it lies somewhere in the experience I recently had on Tu B’Av. It’s part sharing stories, feelings, and questions, coupled with seeing Israel through many lenses and many viewpoints. I’m thankful to the URJ for moving the conversation along, and to my colleagues for joining me in the experience.
Rabbi Mara Young is the Director of Congregational Learning at Woodlands Community Temple in Greenburgh, NY. She is married to Mark S. Young and is the proud mother of their baby daughter, Noah.
The Journal of Youth Engagement is an online forum of ideas and dialogue for those committed to engaging youth in vibrant Jewish life and living. Join the discussion and become a contributor.