Over the last year I was fortunate enough to be appointed Director of NFTY in Israel working along side Paul Reichenbach and a dedicated team that continues to run arguably some of the most successful programs coming out of the URJ in the last fifty years. Everyone knows NFTY in Israel and if you have ever talked to a Reform Jewish professional and or a lay leader, chances are that one of the formative pillars of their Reform Jewish identity took place while on a NFTY in Israel program. Long before Birthright arrived on the scene; we at the URJ knew that there was something phenomenal about educational programs that bring young American Jews to the Jewish state. Clearly HUC figured this out and that is why it is mandatory for all first year students attending HUC to spend their first year living and studying in Israel. Fortunately I have been privileged to experience both of these frameworks. At the age of seventeen I spent six months living in Israel on a long term NFTY in Israel program and of course my first year at HUC was spent studying on the Jerusalem campus. The privilege to now give back to programs from which I received so much is an awesome opportunity, an opportunity for which I am both grateful and a task to which I am deeply committed.
I must admit that as someone who has always supported URJ programs in Israel, I was not completely ready to witness the transformation that happens for so many of these six hundred and eleven young adults who come to Israel with us in the summer. Of course we all promote our own programs and love to give spin, but in my twenty five years of work in Jewish education, I have rarely experienced feedback and reactions of the type we received this summer. So what happened? What is it about this encounter with Israel that is so inspiring and so moving? What have we learned about these significant experiences in Israel that makes such an indelible imprint on one’s Jewish psyche?
First off, one of the outstanding changes we notice is that after the summer there is an expansion of these young people’s Jewish core identity. They move from solely defining themselves as Americans who practice Judaism to defining themselves as members of the Jewish People (Am Yisrael). In addition to a strong grounding in Reform Judaism that many of these young people posses, the summer experience in Israel supplements these powerful connections to Reform Judaism with feelings and connections to Jewish Peoplehood, a key part of Reform Jewish identity in 2011. At NFTY in Israel we start walking through Jewish history beginning with wandering in the Negev desert, ascending to Jerusalem, and exploring the rest of Israel both ancient and modern. In the land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael) our participants not only go throughout the land of Israel, but the land goes through them…and like B’nei Yisrael in the Torah-they too are transformed. Suddenly when these young people hear the word Jew, it not only resonates for them with the word Judaism, but now resonates with the word Judea. Judea is where the Jewish people come from and the actual reason we are called Jews.
There is another profound connection these young people formulate in addition to the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael) and the People of Israel (Am Yisrael) and that is their connection with the Torah of Israel (Torat Yisrael). It is beyond words to see teens who have sung and prayed for years about sites in Israel and then finally get a chance to experience these places with all of their senses. These young people have sung about the Negev desert in the Birkat Hamazon (Blessing after Meals), have chanted about the prophets of Judea for their Haftarahs at their Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and have read from the Torah about the Children of Israel with Moses and Miriam. And when they walk in the footsteps of their ancestors, Jewish sacred text and Jewish sacred space is brought together in a way these young people can barely believe. It is these moments in NFTY in Israel, like when we are in the desert and our educator pulls out a Hebrew Bible as a guide book, that our young people see that these are not simply stories in the Hebrew Bible, but that these are our stories ….our history.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the NFTY in Israel experience is watching how on an almost unconscious level our participants start to realize that they are living in a Jewish public culture. Suddenly they see that Israel is a place like no other because it is where “public place is Jewish space”. Our participants begin to notice the power of Hebrew, not only as a language of prayer but as a living language on the street. They see Jewish policemen and that the rhythm of life in Israel is determined by Jewish time. The most powerful example of this is on Shabbat where they see how on Friday afternoon an entire society slowly grounds to a halt. It doesn’t matter if you are religious or secular, Shabbat simply cannot be ignored in the Jewish state. It is like watching the city of Jerusalem deeply exhale. It is even more interesting to bring our groups into the center of Jerusalem before Havdalla on Saturday night and have them watch the center of town move from being completely empty to being filled with Jerusalem night life.
Clearly a journey in Israel is not only about the ancient aspects of Israel, learning about the importance of peoplehood, liturgy and land. There is also something remarkable in the way that our young people absorb the modern miracle of Israel; granted a miracle that came about as a result of lot of work and sacrifice. Suddenly the reality of a sovereign Jewish state becomes very clear to them. Seeing soldiers very close to their own age who carry the responsibility of protecting the Jewish people in their land has a powerful impact. And with this understanding comes the discussions about the complexities of Jewish sovereignty, as well as questions about ethical sovereignty. For so many years Jews have said that being Jewish is about being ethical, but as we have learned it is easy to be ethical when you are powerless, the real test of ethics comes when you posses power. And Israel at this point in time posses the most military power the Jewish people has known in two thousand years. It is also clear to these young adults that Israel is also a country that lives in a very tough neighborhood. Over time through sites visited, lectures and conversations with Israelis (their age and older), our participants come to understand that when the Jewish State behaves in a certain way it impacts Jews around the world. And here they begin to internalize the critical importance for Jews who live in the Diaspora (especially Reform Jews) of being part of the conversation regarding Israel.
Many of us who work in the field of Israel-education have realized that “times have changed,” and as a result we understand that the “conversation” about Israel needs to change as well. If we want to continue to run educational programs that are relevant, we need to appreciate the zeitgeist that surrounds the next generation. For those of us over who are middle aged and above, we remember an Israel from the early years as a country rising from the ashes of the Holocaust and heroically surviving war after war. We still remember the victorious Israel of the 1967 Six Day War and the nightmare of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. But Donniel Hartman (Shalom Hartman Institute) rightly points out that for the older generation, Israel and Diaspora forged a relationship that was built on a “covenant of crisis.” Israel was always being threatened with destruction and American Jews were always there with political and economic support. As someone who lives in Israel, I know that Israel still needs to be vigilant and we cannot afford to let our guard down for even one second. However slowly but surely this “crisis narrative” is failing to speak to the next generation both in North America and even in Israel. Therefore it is now up to us to begin to seek an alternative narrative that will bind these two very important, very significant Jewish communities in the years to come.
All of us know that the Israel narrative has grown far more complex. These days Israel’s actions and its government’s policies can be quite uncomfortable for many North American Jews. In his article “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” in the New York Review of Books, Peter Beinart took the Jewish community to task by pointing out that the young generation of Jews in North America is not necessarily as enamored with Israel in the same way the older generation has been. They have no memories of ’67 or ’73 and when it comes time to checking their liberal values at the door in order to support Israel, often times they would rather check their Zionist values at the door. Where as I don’t completely buy Beinart’s thesis, and know of many young Jews who support Israel, I think his point about the changing relationship should be taken very seriously.
Therefore even after an amazing summer in Israel that deepens and transforms our young people’s Jewish identities, it is crucial for us to remember that our work does not end when these teens return home but in many respects… it just begins. And now that Israel has become relevant for these young teens as part of their own personal Jewish narrative, what will be the new conversation in the future for this generation between the Jewish community in North America and the Jewish community in Israel? If the next generation is moving beyond a “covenant of crisis” we need to ask ourselves what are the values, the shared goals, and what is the common dialogue? After my first year at NFTY in Israel, I am far from giving the answers. Rather at this time I am still formulating many of the questions. But I am convinced that NFTY in Israel is ensuring that Reform Jews will continue to play an invaluable role, now and in the future, in the crucial conversation between the Jewish community in North America and Israel.
Article written by Rabbi Rich Kirschen