(Originally appeared in the February 17, 2011 issue of the Temple Israel Voice.)
By the time this column appears in print, I will be in Israel with 39 teenagers, members of our community in 8th through 12th grade. We might be at this very moment praying in the eternal city of Jerusalem, pounding the streets of Tel Aviv, hiking through the Jilaboon stream in the Golan, on top of Masada, or learning about the mandate-era British immigration blockade in Atlit.
To me, however, the high point of this trip is not the touristy stuff, the things that everybody does on their 10-day tour of Israel. Rather, it is the experience that the group will have on the second Shabbat that we are there, when we will be hosted by families that belong to the Masorti (that’s the name of Conservative Judaism outside of North America) synagogue in Ashkelon, a city on the Mediterranean coast. There we will celebrate Shabbat together with teens from the Israeli equivalent of USY, spend time in the homes of our Israeli hosts, and thus experience (if only for a day and a half) something that most visitors to Israel never experience - a slice of Israeli life as peers. This is unique, and our teens will never forget it.
I am reminded of a well-known poem by Jerusalemite Yehuda Amichai (zikhrono livrakha), “Tourists,” in which he identifies the problem with tourism in Israel: that is, seeing the ancient rocks rather than the living, breathing inhabitants
"Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower; I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. 'You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.'
"'But he’s moving, he’s moving!' I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, 'You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who has bought fruit and vegetables for his family.'"
This may, in fact, be the holiest work that I have done as a rabbi. Having visited Israel for the first time at age 17, I know that placing Israel on the radar of a Jewish teen during the key period of one’s identity formation is essential. This trip will help the participants understand Jewish nationhood, our connection as Diaspora Jews to the Jewish state, and the outgrowth of Zionism as the newest branch of Jewish civilization.
But beyond that, there is even more here. As I have stated for the record numerous times in the past year, the continuation of our children’s identification with Jewish institutions after Bar/Bat Mitzvah is crucial. This trip is not only about Israel; it is also about building strongly-identified, Jewishly-knowledgeable adults, who will some day hold the reins of the Jewish community. They will return with new perspectives on Judaism and Jewish life, which will strengthen not only these teens as individuals, but also the Youth House and Temple Israel. And they will not only have dipped in the Dead Sea and cried at the Kotel (the Western Wall); they will have also met the man who has bought fruit and vegetables for his family.
Many thanks go to the Khorshid Dina Harounian Israel Education Fund and several other donors who made this trip possible.