By: Rabbi David Wilfond
On Thursday, the group visited the Hebrew University Campus on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. This was the first University in the world to make Hebrew its language of instruction. When the university was founded in 1918 there were maybe 10,000 people in the world who could claim Hebrew as their first language. Today there are nearly 7 million people who speak Hebrew as their first language. Hebrew has been reborn and some even say “resurrected.” The Hebrew University has played a huge role in the rebirth of the Hebrew Language. Today more Jews speak, write and dream in Hebrew as their first language, than any other language. This is the first time in more than 2,000 years that Hebrew has become again the primary langue of the Jewish people.
Hebrew University also offers a unique perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. In 1948 after the British Government withdrew its forces from ruling over Palestine and after the ensuing Arab-Israeli War ended, the University campus on Mount Scopus and the neighboring Hadassah Hospital found itself isolated like an island in Jordanian territory cut off from the rest of Israeli Jerusalem by about one mile and half. In 1948 the Old City of Jerusalem was conquered by the Jordanians and the Jewish Community of the millennial old Jewish Quarter of the Old City was expelled as refugees. The Hebrew University and Mount Scopus were cut off from the rest of Israel and were frequently the target of attacks. The worst being in 1948 when the Arabs massacred 79 Jewish doctors of Hadassah Hospital. Nineteen years later in 1967, following Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, the U.N supervised “No-man’s land” that divided Jerusalem into an Israeli half and Jordanian half were dismantled and Jerusalem was once again united into one city. The uniting of the city has not been without its complexities and difficulties.
Hebrew University’s story and location provides tremendous insight on the conflict, and sometimes this had been sad and painful. In 2002 a Hamas Terrorist planted a bomb in the University’s Frank Sinatra Cafeteria that killed 9 people and wounded more than 100. Shock waves rocked the country as the University had always been seen an oasis for peaceful dialogue and learning. Since then the security at the University has been enhanced to make it one of the most secure academic facilities on the planet. The quest for dialogue and peace still continues amongst the students who hail from every minority community and every corner of Israel. Praised as the “Harvard of the Middle East,” Hebrew U has produced more Noble Prize winners than any other university in the region. International Relations, Crisis Management, and Peace Studies are still three of the most popular academic programs. Walking through the green spaces at the university one is inspired by the buzz of intellectual activity among the student body. It is hoped that friendships forged here between students of different backgrounds may lead to lasting relationships of trust that can become a foundation one day for greater peace between the diverse inhabitants of this land.
After lunch the group was hosted by a Muslim family in their home in Ein Rafa, a village at the outskirts of Jerusalem that is committed to promoting the co-existence of Jews and Arabs in the Land of Israel. The Mom of the family named Yasmin is a Muslim and an articulate teacher of Islam. Yasmin creates a safe space in which the participants can ask any question they have about Muslims, Islam and the Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Yasmin is very charismatic and does her best to challenge and break stereotypes and enables the students to engage with the challenges for Israel to be both a Democratic and a Jewish State. This was very stimulating and compelling discussion for our teens.
On Friday the group’s exploration of Modern Israel brought them to the sunshine capital of Tel Aviv, the first Hebrew City. Founded in 1909, this was the first city in the world for more than 2,000 years in which Hebrew was the main language spoken on the street. Tel Aviv is about revival; the revival of Hebrew, the revival of the Jewish People and the revival of spirit. Tel Aviv is known for its unbridled joie de vivre. The group got to see Tel Aviv at its vibrant best at the Nachalat Binyamin Food and Arts Market. Here the pulse of optimism is palpable. Here one smells the salt of the sea mixed with the aromas of Baklava, Pistachios, Apricots, sweet Turkish coffee and honey covered Challahs ready for Friday night’s Shabbat dinner. The kids love sampling the treats on offer at the market place.
The group also visited Israel’s Independence Hall where the first Prime Minister of a Jewish County in 2,000 years, David Ben-Gurion, read the Delectation of Independence and established the State of Israel in 1948.
There is the dream and then there are bumps on the road of reality. Independence Hall represented the dream. But the path to fulfilment of the dream is far more complicated and at times tragic. From here the group went to Rabin Square to the site of the assassination of Israel’s Premier, Yitzhak Rabin, who had been a soldier in all of Israel’s wars and then desired to be a leader of peace. The tragic loss of Yitzhak Rabin and his vision and the implications for us today were the thrust of a deep conversation for the group at Rabin Square, the site of his assassination in 1995. All of these activities were done jointly with the Israeli teens of the NFTY “Youth Connections” Kishrey Noar Program. There is no better was to learn about modern Israel than through the eyes of, and in conversation with, Israeli teen peers.
Friday night the group celebrated Shabbat services at their hotel on Kibbutz Ramat Rachel located on the southern edge of Jerusalem. This Shabbat focused on the bitter-sweet fact that this will be the group’s last Shabbat together in Israel.
On Saturday, after the Shabbat morning services, the American teens travelled to the homes of the eight Israelis of the Kishrey Noar (Youth Connections) program. The American teens were hosted by the families of the Israeli teens in their homes for Shabbat lunch. This was a high light of the program. To see their Israeli friends in their homes with their parents was a powerful experience on many levels.
Today, Sunday, the group traveled to the Weitzman Institute in Rechovot. Of the 21 of the most prescribed medicines on the planet, seven of them are the direct results of research done by the Weitzman Institute for Science and Medicine. No other research center on the planet can claim to have done as much to heal humanity than the Weitzman Institute. There is much to be proud of when discussing Israel’s achievements in science and its application. This is Jewish Tikkun Olam at its best – making contributions to help cure humanity’s illnesses throughout the world.
Also in Rechovot today the group visited the Ayalon Institute. The Ayalon Institute is a symbol of Israeli ingenuity and determination. During the years the British Government ruled over Palestine 1917-1948, the British law made it illegal for Jews to possess weapons or ammunition. In the 1940’s when the British announced their intention to relinquish their rule of Palestine-Eretz Yisrael – The Jews found themselves in a problem. The five surrounding Arab countries had publically declared their intention to send their armies to destroy the new country of Israel and to “Throw the Jews into the Sea.” The Israeli’s needed to defend themselves, but they had no guns or bullets. So what did they do? They build a secret factory underground to make simple bullets. Many historians have written that in 1948 the Jewish community of Israel most likely would not have survived were it not for the few bullets that had been produced at the Ayalon Institute.
Tonight after dinner the group will have a final party to celebrate and remember highlights of the trip.
Tomorrow, Monday, the group will visit Mount Hertzl. This is like Israel’s ‘”Arlington National Cemetery.” Here lie soldiers from all of Israel’s wars. This site tells the story of the struggle of Israel throughout its history. Here one learns about the inspiring lives of people who paid the ultimate price so that the People of Israel might live. Buried side by side one finds generals and simple soldiers, men and women, young and old. All are equal in death. All gave their lives. May we through our lives give their sacrifice the meaning and respect that is deserved.
Following lunch, Monday in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter the group makes a final visit to the Western Wall for the last time to place a note between its stones and offer a Good-Bye prayer. Here the group will share a song of blessing in gratitude for having been able to make this journey – a sacred pilgrimage to the land of Israel. For some, this may be the only time they will ever come to Israel. We hope they will return and bring their family and friends.
In the afternoon the group will visit the campus of Hebrew Union College for an Educational Summary Program and Friendship Circle before making their way to Ben Gurion Airport.
The last days of the trip are designed to inspire memories for a lifetime. Creating Jewish memories are what NFTY in Israel is all about. Our hope is to create Jewish memories that inspire the participants to feel a part of the Jewish Community and to feel a commitment to its future as happy, proud members and maybe even a leader in the next generation of our people – L’Dor V’Dor (from Generation to Generation). Freud noted that only people with memories can have dreams. At NFTY we want the participants to have Jewish Memories that can lead to Jewish Dreams. We want to see that the next generation has the tools to dream Big Jewish Dreams for the Future of the Jewish People. May the participants travel from “Strength to Strength.”