By Rabbi Lee Buckman
This past fall, Birthright Israel turned 18 years old. Over 600,000 young adults – roughly the number of Jews in the State of Israel in 1948 and the number of Israelites who stood at Mount Sinai thousands of years ago – have now participated on one of Birthright’s free trips to Israel. This is a stunning milestone.
Anyone who has been to Israel knows how transformational a visit can be. The question I grapple with is how do we motivate young people and how do we convince their parents that spending a longer period of time in Israel is worthwhile? How do we persuade families that spending six months or a year in Israel, versus 10 days, is not just a difference in quantity, but, more importantly, in quality?
In the Orthodox community, it is virtually a rite of passage for a high school graduate to spend a year in Israel. Not so in the non-Orthodox community and, as a result, non-Orthodox emerging adults miss out on an experience that can contribute something vital to their Jewish identity.
A long-term Israel experience imparts in young people the feeling that they are part of a worldwide extended family. They become part of something larger than themselves, and this affects both their level of commitment to Israel and their identity as a Jew.
Jewish identity has at least two components: a sense of peoplehood and shared ideals. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, called these two aspects of identity “brit avot,” a covenant of family, and “brit Sinai,” a covenant of religious commitments. Since the time of Abraham, we have been part of a definable family and people. We share a common history and a reciprocal responsibility to an extended family. Sinai invested this people with a purpose. At Sinai, we became a nation defined by a religious mission.
In the Diaspora, our Judaism is defined mostly in terms of religious commitments or along some religious spectrum. It revolves mostly around the “brit Sinai.” “Doing Jewish” is mostly a private thing. But in Israel, if one is here long enough, one can experience the covenant of family and not just the covenant of faith.
In Israel, students can feel what it’s like not to be marginal or a tolerated Diaspora minority. They taste what it’s like to be part of a Jewish majority. In Israel Shabbat is not something they may or may not celebrate in the privacy of their apartment or dormitory; shabbat is something they feel in the streets. Likewise, during the High Holidays, the Coca Cola bottle labels read “Shana tova.” On Purim, the bus signs say “Happy Purim.” On Pesach and Chanukah, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut, the whole country looks different and smells different.
When high school graduates are not rushed to compress all of Israel into a 10-day trip, they have the luxury of enjoying the music and art and the myriad of other cultural dimensions of a people rooted in its own land. They develop a relationship with the storekeeper down the block, the restaurant owner across the street, the children in the neighbourhood. They meet Jews who do not look like them, eat like them, or practice like them – people who come from Yemen, Morocco, the Former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. All are part of the nation of Israel. They begin to see the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible, as their story; the story of an ancient nation re-born. They come to appreciate Hebrew not just as a language that gives them access to sacred texts, but one that acts as the vehicle connecting them to Israelis in all their diversity. Language helps define them as part of a people.
The Diaspora Jewish community has mastered the short-term trip to Israel. Now, we are ready to go deeper. Universities view an extended global experience not as a deviation from a substantive education and profitable career but as a life-enhancing world experience that deeps the path to mature adulthood. For us as Jews, an extended program in Israel provides more than just an opportunity to mature or learn how to live on one’s own.
It provides maturing students with the opportunity to see themselves as a member of a sacred family and global people and develop a loyalty to both. It exposes them to an environment where Israeli culture and Jewish values will be a natural part of their social consciousness.
An extended volunteer, work, or study experience in Israel is an opportunity that should be a rite of passage – not just for high school graduates in one denomination, but for every student in all segments of the Jewish community.
Rabbi Lee Buckman is the former head of School at the Anne & Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto. He now lives in Jerusalem and works with Rabbi Benny Lau at Tanach929.