By Rabbi Charles Savenor
At the end of December, Park Avenue Synagogue (PAS) of New York will lead a Congregational Trip to Israel to celebrate both Israel at 70 and PAS at 136. At a time when Israel has become a divisive topic in some parts of the Jewish world, our synagogue’s clergy, professional and lay leadership have emphasized the importance of this experience as an expression of our abiding commitment to Israel despite its political and spiritual differences and challenges.
While this trip was intended to celebrate these historical moments, the program has taken on historic significance in its own right. Over 450 members registered almost instantly for this multigenerational journey, which is one of, if not the largest, single synagogue trip to Israel in history.
This multifaceted experience offers five tracks that span from young families to adult learners with participants ranging in age from one year old to our most seasoned adult members. While each track has been designed to have its own age appropriate elements, all of the tracks will include common elements: celebrating religious pluralism, exploring how Israel uses Jewish values to promote inclusion, interactions with IDF lone soldiers and senior army leadership briefings, engaging in dialogue about the geopolitical situation, and participation in a Tikkun Olam project, such as Leket Israel.
As soon as the registration numbers came in, our team has spent time reflecting on the enthusiastic response to this trip. We believe that several factors are involved as follows:
- Commitment to Israel Engagement – Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, educators and our leadership are dedicated to building Jewish identity that has Israel embedded it. Ten years ago when Rabbi Cosgrove began his tenure as PAS senior rabbi, he asserted that we would demonstrate our ongoing support for and relationship with Israel through a congregational trip every year. Adult study missions, young family trips and Bnei Mitzvah experiences are part of our annual planning.
- A Culture of Travel Education – Building upon the success of previous synagogue-wide missions to Israel, this annual commitment has created a culture of travel education in the congregation. We not only travel to Israel, but also to Poland, Hungary, Germany, the Czech Republic, and, in November 2019, Russia. Our education team gives as much attention to pre-trip orientations and post-trip engagement as to the itinerary and the day-to-day details of the journey itself. A pillar of our PAS travel philosophy is that a trip is just the beginning of our community building and learning experiences that continues long after we return to New York.
- Exploration with Our Eyes Wide Open – Israel education represents a pillar of our lifelong learning educational agenda. For instance, PAS spent 2018 focused on the theme of “Telling Israel’s Story“ with scholars and thought leaders like Danny Gordis, Rachel Korazim, Gil Troy, and Francine Klagsbrun. These session not only prepared trip participants for their experience overseas, but also engaged the entire congregation in a dynamic conversation about the blessings and complexity of the modern Jewish state. In addition to visiting innovation centers in “Start Up nation,” our PAS participants will explore Israel’s social challenges with Professor Avi Weiss of the Taub Center, engage in interfaith dialogue at Beit Ha’Gefen in Haifa, and meet with Haredim who secretly serve in the IDF. We do not shy away from Israel’s current challenges, rather we are committed to understanding the context and to imagining a homeland that represents the best of Jewish values.
- Embracing Jewish Peoplehood – One value that has framed this upcoming trip is religious pluralism. PAS leadership sees Israel as the homeland of all Jews and we are committed as a Conservative synagogue to this vision and ideal. While some aspects of Israelis society have been alienating to liberal Jews, such as the prayer space at the Western Wall, our upcoming trip represents an opportunity to demonstrate our love for the Jewish homeland that transcends politics. To reinforce our support of religious pluralism, the synagogue will donate a Sefer Torah to the Ezrat Yisrael, the section of the Kotel that is used for egalitarian prayer. What better birthday gift to the modern state of Israel than a reminder of what binds all Jews together spiritually and historically.
PAS appreciates that this level of engagement runs counter to the trends about synagogues in North America. This awareness shaped our leadership’s desire to position this trip as a statement of the vitality of Judaism in the diaspora. One expression of this that the weekend before the Congregational Trip, PAS will hold a Leadership Shabbaton with 61 board members in Tel Aviv. In addition to praying at local Masorti congregations and studying with Zohar Raviv, the Chief Education Officer of Birthright, the weekend will meet with new Jewish Agency head, Isaac Herzog, and conclude with our first ever board meeting in Israel that will be livestreamed back to the US so that all board members can participate.
Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, once said: “It’s not enough to be up to date, you have to be up to tomorrow.” The 450 Park Avenue Synagogue members are not just coming to Israel to commemorate historic occasions, but also to build a future together in which the relationship between Israel and diaspora will be stronger than ever.
Rabbi Charles Savenor is the Director of Congregational Education at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York.