A Challenge to Our Young People: Rebuilding Am Yisrael

by Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Va-Yetzeh Ya’akov m’Beersheva – And Jacob left Beersheva.

These were, eerily, the first words of the parashah for last Shabbat, which I spent in Israel as part of a mission with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the central coordinating body for 52 North American Jewish agencies.

While in Israel, I met with top military and political leaders to learn firsthand about the situation on the ground. But my schedule also included visits with young Reform Jews. I wanted to be with them, both personally and on behalf of our Movement, and to see how they were doing during this difficult time. Thankfully, but not surprisingly, what I found were remarkable young people who personify the strength and spirit of K’lal Yisrael.

I met Jewish high school students who came from North America to spend a semester in Israel on the Reform Movement’s NFTY-EIE program. As I sat with them on Kibbutz Tzuba near Jerusalem on Shabbat morning, I couldn’t help but think of Jacob who left Beersheva, in southern Israel, because he was afraid for his life. The midrash tells us that Jacob was about 16 years old when he left. And there I sat with teens who had just faced the fear of falling rockets as they were sent to bomb shelters on the kibbutz. They were understandably afraid, but also incredibly resilient. We talked about the strength they discovered within themselves, their community, and the Israeli society that surrounds them. Indeed, on Shabbat Vayeitzei many around the Jewish world and in M’dinat Yisrael (the State of Israel) awakened to the deep truth that we are not alone. We are part of Am Yisrael, the Jewish people and our Jewish State.

I also met with an extraordinary group of young Israelis who live, study and work together as part of our Israel Movement’s Mechinah Project, a post-high school, pre-army initiative focused on Jewish heritage and Israeli identity. Mechina is based in a diverse neighborhood of Jaffa, whose residents include Jews from an extremely wide range of religious and ethnic backgrounds, as well as Muslim and Christian Arabs and migrant laborers from around the world. Placing our Mechina Project in Jaffa serves one of the fundamental pillars of the IMPJ: working in a poor, urban area to aid people in need. But last week, these young people left their temporary home in Jaffa and headed south – to Beersheva – to lift the spirits of children who had spent countless days and nights in bomb shelters. Though Jacob left Beersheva out of fear, our young people traveled there to assuage the fear of their younger brothers and sisters.

I challenged the Mechina participants, and other Israeli youth I met, to think about ways we can help build an Israel that embraces the majestic diversity that is our Jewish identity today, and how we non-Orthodox Jews can establish our rightful place in the Jewish state.

On my last day in Israel, I met with rabbinical, cantorial and education students at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. I encouraged them to fully recognize their role as the voices of their generation, to bring their love of Israel back to North America, and to share it generously in their communities. I encouraged them to think about these questions: how do our congregations relate to Israel day-to-day? How can we strengthen the bonds between our communities and Israel? How can we encourage our members to engage more deeply with M’dinat Yisrael?

These are the issues we are discussing throughout our Movement today – in our congregations and among our young people. AmYisrael must deepen our bonds in good times and in bad, in peace and in war. This conversation is of existential importance not just in the Reform Movement, but throughout the entire Jewish community. My hope for the future is that our young people will lead us to work together toward our shared vision of Israel as the heart of the Jewish people. By the time I left there for home, I was more convinced than ever that they will be equal to the task.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is president of the Union for Reform Judaism.