Telling the Story with Feeling, Then and Now

by Eric M. Lankin

The most significant obligation in the observance of Pesach is that we the Jewish people must spiritually re-experience the Exodus from Egypt, seeing ourselves as if we were redeemed. As we tell the story on the Seder nights of the Exodus and God’s power that redeemed our people from slavery, we must virtually bring ourselves back to those moments. Interestingly, by only reciting on the Seder nights the content of those stories, for example, who were the protagonists and antagonists, the chronology, and the physical scene of each of the events, we miss the spiritual power of the experience because we leave out the emotions of the people who were living through the events. If our obligation is to see ourselves as if we were redeemed from Egypt, we must recognize that not only the details of the Haggadah are important but our emotions.

I recall that when I was studying for my doctorate, one fascinating course that I studied was Bibliodrama with Dr. Peter Pitzele. The course centered on the idea that one way to personally relate to the Bible is to accept a role as a character from the Bible and act out a scene where the character appears but instead of quoting from the text, you create your own dialogue as a form of commentary. The dialogue is exceptionally revealing because you become the character and your personal feelings and issues become superimposed on the Biblical character.

Returning to the Exodus experience and seeing yourself as an average Hebrew hearing the instructions of Moses, how do you imagine you would feel during the preparations and crossing of the Red Sea? I can imagine that it is very hard, perhaps practically impossible, to emotionally relate to the story. Remembering that the Israelites spent 210 years in slavery, imagine how difficult it was for them to accept that freedom from Pharaoh was upon them. Imagine their fear of the unknown future. What do we know about the slave experience? Who among us can emotionally connect to the brutality, cruelty and restrictions of slavery outside of the Holocaust survivors whom we pray that God should continue to protect?

Connecting to the emotions of the characters in past events becomes a regular challenge if your goal is to better understand the actions of the characters. Similar to our obligation to re-experience the Exodus and God’s power that freed our people, imagine the feelings of the Jewish leaders who heard Herzl address the First Zionist Congress in Basel Switzerland in August 1897. Sitting in the Basel Opera House, dressed in a tuxedo or ball gown, perhaps some were moved and inspired by the power of Herzl’s oratory or perhaps others felt he was a lunatic. No matter whether they agreed or disagreed with Herzl, they came from a milieu of prevalent anti-Semitism, of restrictions on where Jews could live, what professions they could pursue, and where their children could be educated. An individual Jewish leader may have agreed or disagreed with Herzl’s political plan, but no individual at the First Zionist Congress in Basel could reasonably deny the fear of the Jews of France during the Dreyfus trial and the continuing expression of anti-Semitism in Europe.

This issue is a challenge to us as Jewish professional and volunteer leaders who love and are committed to Israel. Our responsibility is to tell the story of our people in our old-new homeland and to encourage our fellow Jews to join us to manifest their connection to the rebuilding of Israel. Telling only the physical details of our work on the ground, as significant as it is, isn’t enough. If we accept the task to inspire and encourage our fellow Jews to participate with us in building Israel, we must try and express the feelings of the people who sat the Basel Opera House and listened to Herzl, the Jews who built kibbutzim in one night with a tower and stockade to avoid Arab attacks, Holocaust survivors who escaped the worst experiences of any generation of Jews and who were handed a shovel to plant trees when they got off a boat in Haifa, and the firefighters who fought to save every tree during the recent Carmel forest fire.

But even if we share the stories of our people and the struggle for the creation of the State of Israel, and even if we convey the feelings of those who lived through those formative experiences of the return of our people to our homeland, it still may not be enough to inspire the next generation of Jews. Unlike every generation of Jews who understood in their souls the precarious nature of Jews in the world, and how we had been treated throughout the generations, these young Jews have little fear bred by personal experiences of anti-Semitism, including restrictions on admissions to certain colleges, limitations on where Jews could live and work, and fear of their personal safety because they are a Jew.

Much of what motivates our commitment to Israel is our personal experiences and also the stories we heard directly from those who lived through those difficult experiences. Yes, many of us imagine the feelings of our people having no alternative but to defend themselves from Arab attacks, or living through the horrors of the Holocaust because we may have heard directly from those who experienced them. The power of those extraordinary stories including the feelings shared, motivates many of us and fuels our desire to be part of the present story of the building of Israel.

However, it is those powerful stories that when shared turn off many of the young people whom we engage on a regular basis. These young people have no personal memory of anti-Semitism, Jewish suffering, and the compelling nature for the Jewish people why the existence of Israel is so important and non-negotiable. They do not understand our concern for Israel’s borders and they are baffled by Israel’s positions in negotiations with the Palestinians. Our American Jewish young people face no restrictions as Jews in America, can study in any university, and are considered for any job. The idea that the Jewish people had to create a modern nation to rescue our people endangered and the feelings of being in danger is totally foreign to them.

Without denying the power of the stories that motivate us, we have to tell a different story about Israel, equally true, and equally powerful to motivate this next generation. The story has to convey that the Jewish people did not give up on the world after one-third of its people were murdered and that the society they created in our ancient homeland protects all of its residents and is bound by law. We must share that Israel is only almost 64 years old has made a unique and quite a significant contribution to bettering life for all of the people of the world. Its anthem means “the hope” and even when surrounded by a sea of dictatorships, it created a democracy, as loud and as raucous as the best of them.

If our goal is to facilitate connection and commitment of the next generation of Jews to Israel, again we must avoid only conveying the facts and figures of life in Israel and the specific details of this or that invention, as extraordinary as they may be. We must connect these young Jews to our Israeli brethren in Israel, allow them to hear the Israelis share their feelings of life in Israel and the society which, as Israelis, they are committed to continuously protect and improve. It will be the real Israel, not a mythical perfect country dancing the hora but the Israel with a heart that envelops every newcomer, and the Israel that struggles to make its society better but not fast enough for some. It will be listening to the expression of those feelings directly from the Israelis themselves in Israel which will convey the imperative of the success of Israel that will potentially transform these young American Jews into Israel supporters.

To make this happen, we as American Jewish leaders must redouble our efforts to bring young Jews to Israel and to expose them to the real Israel. JNF’s commitment to the Alexander Muss High School in Israel and their now two campuses in Hod HaSharon and Eshel HaNasi enables American teens to not only study in Israel but live on a campus with Israeli peers. We pay extra to put 7-8 Israeli peers on every JNF-Shorashim Taglit Birthright Israel bus of 40 for the entire ten-day experience. Our Alternative Break program for 18-30 year olds, with now over 1200 past participants, volunteer in Israeli communities and experience life in Israel with all of its challenges. We could be taking many more young people on Alternative Break but are limited only by the funds that JNF raises for that purpose. Hundreds of more Jewish high school students each year would experience the outstanding program at the Muss School if we could offer more scholarships.

As we prepare to tell the story on the Seder night of the redemption of our people from Egyptian slavery and to see ourselves as if we were redeemed, let’s also see ourselves in the story of modern Israel, the beginning of the flowering of our modern redemption. Yes, we are characters in that story and our deep and abiding commitment to Israel and how we engaged the next generation of Jews to become participants in insuring Israel’s successful future will be the story that will be told by our children and grandchildren.

Hag Kasher V’Sameah! Warmest wishes for a joyous and Kosher Pesach!

Rabbi Eric M. Lankin, DMin, is Chief, Institutional Advancement and Education – Jewish National Fund. He can be reached at ELankin@jnf.org.