19 November 2010
12 Kislev 5771
I am writing from the Alexander Muss campus in Hod Hasharon, Israel, where over half of our juniors have spent the last three months and are winding down their final days. When they returned from their last major tiyul (learning trip) last night, our students welcomed me warmly, even amidst their collective studying for their final big test today. I arrived in time to see some of our students sing two songs at a memorial service for the founder of the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, Rabbi Morris Kipper z”l. Some of the boys even invited me to play basketball with them, one of their regular evening activities over the past few months, which I did, despite my sleep deprivation!
On the plane ride to Israel, I was reading Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ book, Future Tense: Jews, Judaism, and Israel in the Twenty-First Century, which reminded me why our students’ Israel experience and, more broadly, their Jewish education are so critical for their own identity formation and for the future of the Jewish People.
In Future Tense, Rabbi Sacks attempts to articulate a vision of what binds Jews together and what Jews and Judaism can offer the rest of the world. He argues that, in order for Judaism to survive into the future, Jews must feel bound together not only by a shared, tragic past but also by their faith in and shared aspirations for the future. Rabbi Sacks suggests that Judaism needs both Israel and the Diaspora and that there are ways in which Judaism thrives and has thrived more in each place. For example, we know that our Israeli brothers and sisters often discover the beauty of Jewish practice and of synagogue life only when they visit the Diaspora. Not surprisingly, I was particularly struck by his beautiful description of why it is so powerful for Jews to visit Israel:
In Israel, Jewish life is a community of fate. There Jews, from the most secular to the most pious, suffer equally from war and terror, and benefit equally from prosperity and peace. Judaism, in Israel, is a presence you breathe, not just religion you practice. In Israel as nowhere else, Jewishness is part of the public domain, in the language, the landscape, the calendar. There you can stand amid the ruins and relics of towns that were living communities in the time of the Bible and feel the full, astonishing sweep of time across which the Jewish people wrestled with its fate as Jacob once wrestled with the angel (in this week’s parsha, Vayishlach, by the way). And there you become conscious, in the faces you see and the accents you hear, of the astonishing diversity of Jews from every country and culture, brought together in the great ingathering as once, in Ezekial’s vision, the dismembered fragments of a broken people joined together and came to life again. . . (p. 46)
I suspect that Rabbi Sacks’ words resonate for many of us who have spent time in Israel and especially for those of us for whom our experiences in Israel have been formative to our Jewish identities. They also help to understand why the Muss experience is so transformational for so many of our students. In addition to developing deep connections to the Land and State of Israel, our students have studied, explored, and experienced their people, their history, their values and their faith in new ways, as a “presence they breathe” rather then as a “religion they practice” or are taught. Having been inspired as well as challenged, our students return home with a new set of knowledge and experiences, with deeper relationships and connections – to each other, to their counselors and teachers, to Israel the place and the people, and to Judaism. And, they no doubt return with as many questions as they have answers.
Like our ancestor Jacob’s journey, may our students’ journeys be enriched by meaning that comes from striving and wrestling with what it means to be Jewish and what it means to be human, and may this process ever deepen their relationships with and commitments to Israel, Judaism, and the Jewish People.
Rabbi Marc Baker