By Rabbi David Wilfond, Director of Education
One of the central values of Jewish tradition is the concept of Torah L’Shma (Learning for its own sake). Often this value feels like it clashes directly with some of the messages that are sent by the dominant western culture that surrounds all of us. At times, we feel as if we are encircled by a construct where learning is treated as simply a means for getting ahead. For most of the year our children (mine included) are tested, evaluated, and ultimately judged by their ability to get high test scores and the right grades. And for many of our children whether they like it or not (or whether we like it or not) this system often makes them feel as though grades and scores are a direct reflection of who they are and even worse who they will grow up to be; and of course, we know this is not true.
All of us feel the pressure and the reality of school, tests and even worse… standardized tests. For Americans it is known as SAT’s/ACT’s and for Israelis it is called Bagrut (which might translate as torture in the ancient Aramaic). Therefore, one of the most wonderful aspects about your children’s experience this summer will be the opportunity for them to engage in a central mitzvah of the Torah…LEARNING. And it will be learning for its own sake…the Jewish value of Torah L’Shma. At NFTY in Israel learning is experiential, interactive and more importantly it is fun. It is also incredibly inter-textual and organic where every subject is connected. When our participants first arrive in Jerusalem, it reminds them of the prayer in the Birkhat HaMazon. When this prayer is sung after meals on Shabbat there is a famous line taken from Psalms 126:1, “When we returned to Jerusalem, it was as if we were dreamers.” This is a prayer, which so many of them know and sing with an intensity, whether they are at URJ summer camp or at NFTY events. Just as this line about dreamers was true for our people over two thousand years ago, it is still true today for our teens when we see them taking in Jerusalem for the first time. When our teens see Jerusalem for the first time they cannot help but be reminded about how at every Jewish wedding a glass is broken under the Chuppah as a way to remember Jerusalem in all our moments from joy to sadness. And of course, they all remember last Passover sitting around the Seder table with their family and saying at the end of the Seder – “Next Year in Jerusalem.” When these young people travel through the land if Israel, it is a remarkable intersection of the scared text they have recited or have sung all their lives – meeting sacred space on which they are walking.
These moments during the trip when we learn about the stories of our people in this land, listen to the teens own personal narratives and help them make connections between the past and the present is an unfolding process that allows them to better understand their future. This summer learning Torah on NFTY in Israel involves learning the stories of the Jewish people from without, but also from within. Our participants move through the land and the history of their people in a chronological order while supported by our staff and encouraged to draw their own conclusions and their own interpretations. This educational process offers them the time, the freedom and the space to make sense of these stories and to make these stories their own. It is a summer that is an invitation to learn, not an exercise in coercion…and ultimately it is an experience in Torah L’Shma.