By Rabbi Rich Kirschen, NFTY in Israel Director
The TANACH or as we know it, the Hebrew Bible, is the foundation for the Jewish people. I would say this book, but in truth this is not a book but a library of many books, that took over 1000 years to write down. The TANACH is the record of the Jewish people’s understanding of its history and our place in this world. The Hebrew word TANACH is actually an acronym for Torah, Prophets and Writings.
Here we have the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, Deborah and Barak, Mordechai and Esther, King David and more. Think about the first time you heard these stories, or the first time you told these stories. Whether it was at the home of a grandparent, the Seder table, religious school or getting ready for bar/bat mitzvah. The stories of the Hebrew Bible are the narrative of the Jewish people and this summer our NFTY in Israel participants are walking through this narrative; and as a result this narrative is walking through them.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel the famous rabbi, theologian and champion for civil rights once commented that while marching through Selma Alabama during the Freedom marches, he felt as though his legs were praying. In NFTY in Israel our participants walk throughout the land of Israel and it is as though their legs are praying too. Here the guide book for our participants is not Lonely Planet or Fodor’s but rather the Hebrew Bible- the TANACH.
From the Negev desert where the children of Israel wandered; to Jerusalem where David built his city- the eternal capital of the Jewish people , to Mt. Carmel where the Prophet Elijah spoke out for justice.. NFTY in Israel combines sacred text with sacred space which is powerful and immersive. And it is a privilege to watch these young people start to make the connection between the prayers and stories they have grown up with and the landscape that is surrounding them. This summer 550 young Reform Jews are connecting the People of Israel with the Land of Israel and the Torah of Israel…they are 15 and 16 years old and their guide book is 3000 years old.
One of the phrases in this guide book (the TANACH/Hebrew Bible) is from the Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) said to be written by King Solomon in his old age. And it says, “to increase learning is to increase heartache… Ecclesiastes 1:18 ” At first I did not understand this phrase but later I learned that there was much wisdom to Kohelet. One of the important pieces to remember about our tradition, is that even though it is thousands of years old, and while our ancestors did not have the technology that we have today (and they might have been better off), they were just as sophisticated emotionally and often times had tremendous insight into human nature. And so Kohelet was telling us that some of our most significant learning experiences are not always our easiest experiences. When I think about parenting – I know that I have learned much from my children – and I am a belter parent for it, but the actual learning was not always fun or easy. There are many learning experiences in life that take great effort and only afterwards do we look back and we are grateful.
This idea of a learning experience that is demanding but not always immediately rewarding is personal growth part of NFTY in Israel. Without a doubt our participants are having fun. However there are also challenging parts of the program, whether hiking in the desert, learning to budget one’s spending money for the first time, figuring out laundry and of course learning to live with so many other peers while traveling thousands of miles away from your family. And this experience calls on them to draw on their strengths that many of them didn’t even know they had or had not had a chance to use.
The result of this journey is a summer of extraordinary growth. Together with the guidance of our well trained staff, supervisors, health professionals, security and senior Staff – our participants return home not only Jewishly connected but often times more mature and more confident. They look back at what they were able to learn and what they were able to accomplish and they are proud that this was done as Judaism has always been done…..in community. And hopefully they will end the summer the way most Israeli children’s books end…….. with the phrase, “Hem Hayu Ayafim Ach Merutzim” “They were very tired but nevertheless very fulfilled.”