By Rabbi Rich Kirschen, Director
Tonight, some of our teens will be spending Shabbat in the city of Krakow, Poland while others will be experiencing morning prayer in the Negev desert. Other teens will be saying kiddush surrounded by the rolling hills of the Galilee, and then there are those teens who will be saying the motzei prayer over the challah along Israel’s Mediterranean coast. This Shabbat, our participants will truly represent the breadth and depth of the Jewish experience, connecting ancient prayers, texts, and stories with our current Jewish reality. Tonight, we’ll explore how, over centuries, we built communities around the world, but never forgot that Israel was the birthplace of our nation. Importantly, this is a time for our teens to ask why any of this is actually relevant to them at their age. And while we may have many answers on NFTY in Israel, nothing is more important than a good question to frame the entire experience.
As our teens move further into the story of our summer, they tend to ask one very basic question: how did we stay together as a people after all these years? Coincidentally, this same question was asked by the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of Tibet. When the Dalai Lama was exiled to Dharamshala, India, he too asked, “How does a people remain a people outside of their land?” Being a very thoughtful leader, the Dalai Lama decided he would invite a number of Jewish rabbis to visit him and find out how the Jews remained a people for two thousand years after being exiled from Judea. He wished to know, if we Jews lacked our own geographic boundaries for two thousand years, what was the glue that has held us together for so long? Of course these rabbis gave many different answers having to do with laws and language, traditions and rites. For us at NFTY in Israel, retracing the Jewish story is a chance to find the glue that connects each teen to this story.
A Zionist Jewish thinker by the name of Ahad HaAm once said, “More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, it is Shabbat that has kept the Jewish people.” In addition to being a summer of unparalleled fun and a journey that will help develop a new level of personal maturity, this is an experience where Jewish fundamentals like Shabbat are not to be taken for granted, but to be questioned and wrestled with. Our questions will not only be relegated to places or concepts, but we will also engage with fellow Jews from a variety of backgrounds. This summer, all of our teens will have a meaningful opportunity to meet with Israeli peers their age. And in this space, the question will be: what do these two Jewish communities in Israel and North America have in common? This is a question often asked by the organized Jewish community today, and be exploring it themselves, our teens see that they have the power to write the next chapters in the Jewish story.
Isadore Rabi, winner of a Nobel Prize in physics, was once asked why he became a scientist. He replied, “My mother made me a scientist without ever knowing it. Every other child would come back from school and be asked, ‘What did you learn today?’ But my mother used to ask: ‘Izzy, did you ask a good question today?’ That made the difference. Asking good questions made me a scientist.” And as we move through time and space at different points on our different programs, we too will confront the existential questions of the 20th century Jewish story which moved from annihilation in Europe to re-birth in Israel, and we will explore how we be balance physical, spiritual, and moral strength with the multitude of challenges that come with having a sovereign Jewish state.