22 November 2013
19 Kislev 5774
This week I joined members of our junior class in Israel for the last days of their three-month experience living in and learning about Israel and the history of the Jewish People.
On Wednesday morning our bus left the Alexander Muss campus for the students’ closing day trip. Our students would visit the graves of Israel’s fallen soldiers, military leaders, and state builders at Mount Herzl. They would get one last taste of Yerushalayim shel ma’alah (“Jerusalem of the Heavens”—spiritual Jerusalem) at the Kotel (Western Wall) and Yerushalayim shel mata (“Jerusalem on Earth”—modern Jerusalem) on Ben Yehuda Street.
However, before arriving in Jerusalem, we had one stop to make on the way. Our bus took an exit off the highway and drove down a long, winding, dirt road. When we stopped, we were greeted by a representative of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) who presented each student with a tree to plant.
As we stood in the middle of a vast field of dirt and shrubbery, it was impossible not to notice the blooming forest of trees across the way, which themselves were planted not so long ago. The trees our students were about to plant will become the forest of the next generation.
The symbolism was powerful. One of the Muss teachers said, “You have taken, learned, gained so much from this land and this country over the past three months. Planting these trees is your opportunity to give something back to the land.” Then, in small groups, the students dedicated their trees to someone they love, perhaps, someone who never made it to Israel, or someone who plays a meaningful role in their Jewish journey.
There was an extraordinary synergy between past, present, and future. There is something so profoundly forward-looking about planting a tree, a tree that we likely will never see mature, a tree that will not give back to the land of Israel for years to come. At the same time, just as they were about to plant their trees, our students looked both inward at themselves and their families and backward toward their Jewish stories and the people who helped them arrive at this very moment.
I was also captivated by the beautiful little trees themselves and, in particular, by their roots—so fragile and yet so powerful, so ready to soak in water and nutrients to provide nourishment as they grow into towering oaks. “Make sure to fully cover the roots with earth so the trees are firmly planted in the ground,” the JNF guide instructed them. What a metaphor for this entire Israel experience and for Jewish education! What a metaphor for how we need to inspire and prepare the next generation to go out into a changing world, not as “orphans in history,” but, instead, with a deep sense of who they are and where they come from! Our students will be proud of and confident in where they are going because they know where they and their ancestors (biological and spiritual) have been.
We need a new generation with strong, healthy roots that run deep through Jewish history, values, and culture, and that will soak up the diversity of thoughts, ideas, values, and wisdom that our society and the human experience have to offer.
Please join me in welcoming back our juniors. We look forward to learning from them and being inspired by them!
Wishing you all a Happy Thanksgivukkah and a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Marc Baker