Lech L’Cha: Exploring the Power of Israel to Develop Social Justice Activists

Screen capture: www.hebrica.com

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 21“Social Justice and Peoplehood” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Dana Talmi and Max Klau

And the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. Genesis 12: 1-2.

According to our tradition, so began the very first Jewish journey. Avram, our forefather, was living a comfortable, prosperous, unremarkable life in Haran when we heard this command to go forth; he was to leave behind all that was familiar and embark upon a journey to the land of Israel. Through this journey, Avram would be transformed into Avraham, and he and the great nation he is destined to beget would be both blessed, and become a blessing to others.

In Hebrew, the command that Abram hears is “lech l’cha”; as many sages have noted, there is an important lesson buried deep in this phrase. “Lech” is the command form of the verb “go!”; that word alone would have been grammatically sufficient in this context. It is followed, however, by a second command, “l’cha,” a term that can be translated as “to yourself.” The full term, “lech l’cha,” therefore translates as “Go to yourself,” and it suggests that this very first Jewish journey was, in fact, a dual journey: It was both a journey through the outer world, to the geographic land of Israel, as well as an inner journey, an encounter with one’s deepest truths, values, and identity. The phrase “lech l’cha” suggests that these two dimensions of that first Jewish journey would unfold simultaneously, and were too interconnected to separate.

We begin this chapter with this brief exploration of sacred text for two reasons. First, because it so powerfully highlights the centrality of Israel to Jewish history, religion and identity. And second, because it illuminates the truth that the outer journey to the land of Israel and the inner journey to our own deepest values and truths are interdependent and interconnected.

In the work we do at the Yahel, these two insights inform our work in important ways. At Yahel, we bring young Jews from around the world to Israel for an intense, demanding year of service focused on working alongside marginalized communities. Like Avram, these young adults leave behind familiar, comfortable, prosperous lives to travel to Israel; once there, they spend their days on the front lines of many of Israel’s most intractable social challenges.

Yahel’s flagship program is the Yahel Social Change Fellowship. This is nine-month service based fellowship puts young adults at the forefront of social issues in Israel. One group of fellows is based in the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood in Rishon LeZion, where they work with Ethiopian-Israelis primarily, and with other populations in the neighborhood as well. These fellows work on 21 different projects, ranging from working with youth at risk in afterschool programs to teaching English in schools and learning centers to supporting the work of different local nonprofit organizations. In the city of Lod, our fellows have the opportunity to work with a diverse set of populations including Arab Israelis. Here, too, Yahel fellows volunteer on 20 different projects at local community centers, schools and nonprofits.

Many of the participants on Yahel are young adults drawn from bastions of progressive activism in North American universities, and they choose this service experience because of their deep commitment to social justice. Working with this population provides us with a remarkable window into the complexities of our current moment in Israel-Diaspora relations, and what we see is both worrisome and alarming.

In the early weeks of the program every year, we encounter participants who have been frightened and confused by the discourse related to Israel in their progressive communities in the diaspora. Their commitment to human rights, racial and economic justice, and social change is foundational to their identity, and their desire to connect with their own Jewish roots, history and culture is real and sincere. And it is clear that the discourse in many communities in the diaspora is intensely hostile to any effort to hold the complexity of our current moment. Those who express sympathy for the Palestinians suffering from the occupation are shouted down by some fellow Jews as self-hating anti-Zionist enemies of Israel; those who express support for Israel’s ability to remain a liberal democracy while confronting relentless terrorist attacks from deeply illiberal neighbors are shouted down by progressive peers as racist, white-supremacist colonizers who support apartheid for brown and black people who are treated as less than fully human.

It’s a brutal, intense, and emotional discourse, in which progressive young Jews feel forced to pick a side in a “you’re either with us or against us” debate. Many are choosing progressive politics, embracing a nuance-free narrative that demonizes Israel in a way that should alarm anyone who cares about the future of Jewish peoplehood. Others – the ones who end up signing up for Yahel – feel silenced and shut down, and are struggling mightily to find a way to simultaneously hold on to their progressive values while strengthening a deep, meaningful, and informed connection to Israel and their Jewish roots.

Yahel provides a pathway to engage in that complex and important inner work. Here in Israel, progressive Jews find a space where they are able to engage with the full complexity of this moment. The fellows engage in service alongside local populations who are most vulnerable today in Israeli society and who are looking for ways to strengthen their own communities from within. At the same time, they encounter the remarkable community of Israeli activists fighting courageously for co-existence, for racial and economic justice, for immigrants’ rights, and so many other progressive values. And they discover that these activists are animated by a deep connection to Jewish values, history, and ethics, and have embraced a sophisticated Zionism that can hold a fierce critique of current injustices along with an immense love of Judaism, Israel, and Jewish peoplehood.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of providing this kind of social justice rite of passage for progressive young Jews at this moment in time. At a time when the brutal, intense Israel discourse in the diaspora leaves progressive young Jews feeling like they must choose between being progressive and loving Israel, a service experience in Israel provides a path that transcends this kind of binary, either/ or choice. Again, and again, we see our participants emerge from this experience having discovered a way to integrate a foundational commitment to progressive values with an intense, informed, and sophisticated love of Israel and Judaism.

At this point, we can confidently claim the Israel service experience is a proven and effective strategy to ensure that this rising generation of Jewish social justice activists maintains the connection to Judaism and Israel that has endured through the millennia. It is a modern iteration of the original Jewish Journey, in which Avram left his familiar, comfortable home to travel to Israel, where he encountered tests and challenges that forged not only his own Jewish identity, but the identity of future generations.

The argument can be made that no other educational experience has the potential to influence the trajectory of young Jews as individuals, and the Jewish people overall, at this challenging and critical moment in history.

Dana Talmi has over 15 years of experience working in the fields of experiential education and service learning. She worked for American Jewish World Service (AJWS) and in 2007 founded Yahel – Israel Service Learning – an Israeli nonprofit that runs service learning and social action programs in Israel. Dana holds a B.A. in Israel studies from Bar-Ilan University and an M.S.W. from the University of North Carolina.

Dr. Max Klau is a leadership development scholar and practitioner who currently serves as the Chief Program Officer at the New Politics Leadership Academy, a U.S.-based nonprofit that is dedicated to recruiting and developing alumni of national service programs to seek political office. Before stepping into this role, he was the Vice President of Leadership Development at City Year, Inc and received his doctorate of education (Ed.D.) from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2005.