By Rabbi Rich Kirschen, Director
Now that the NFTY in Israel journey is about to end, another journey is soon beginning. Once your teens have rested and have had a chance to catch up with the family and friends they missed over the summer, it will be well worth your while to help these world travelers reflect on the journey they have experienced over these past weeks. On NFTY in Israel, our participants are not tourists; they are, in fact, pilgrims. The difference between being a pilgrim and a tourist is that when tourists visit a country, they have a great time, maybe learn a little about the local culture, and that seems to be the end of it. However, when pilgrims visit a country, they certainly have a great time, but more importantly, when they come home it is clear that something about them has changed.
Many of you know about the famous pilgrimage in Islam that is called the Haj, which is a journey all Muslims try to make to Mecca at least once in their lifetime. The related word in Hebrew is Hag, which we use for the word for holiday (as in “Hag Sameach” or quite literally “happy pilgrimage”). In Jewish tradition, there were three times each year–Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot–when all of the Jews from around Israel would come to Jerusalem to make a Hag, a pilgrimage, and when they came back home to their villages, they felt that the journey had changed them. Your teens are among generations of Reform Jews for whom the NFTY in Israel immersive experience has had that same transformative effect. These teens have literally trekked through the depth and breadth of the State of Israel. As I like to say, Israel isn’t a very big country, but it is a very deep country with multiple layers, a dramatic history, and an even more dynamic present. And now that your teens have walked through this story, they too feel a connection with their Jewish past, present, and future.
Indeed, our trip to Europe is another kind of pilgrimage, one that affords our teens the opportunity to forge a deeper understanding of the most challenging period in our people’s long history. This journey is certainly one of learning, but also a show of respect for our ancestors and the hard lessons we draw from their experience. As the Torah commands, we must respect our parents, and this pilgrimage to European cities that were once centers of vibrant and diverse Jewish life allows our teens to begin seeing this commandment for more than its literal meaning. Our collective Jewish family built wondrous synagogues like the first Reform shul in Prague, contributed to Europe’s golden century of art, music, and philosophy, and turned the dream of a Jewish state into a reality. They were also subjected to the afflictions of mistrust, ostracism, and outright hatred. This dual story of Jewish life in Europe is one that we must understand as we continually bring Jewish values to focus on the challenges and opportunities of the world today.
Looking back on the experience in Israel, one of the most powerful layers is the discovery of life in a country where the dominant culture is Jewish. This is a country that operates on Jewish time in terms of national holidays and a work week marked by Shabbat. But there are also the more subtle pieces of the culture, where mezuzahs are on every door (even in the malls), and conversational Hebrew puts a Jewish stamp on every interaction. For many Israelis, being Jewish is simply an organic part of their identity–Jewish-ness is in their public schools, in their literature, in their media, and even in their comedy. In Israel, being Jewish is more of a condition than an option.
Conversely, our teens will return to their homes where the dominant culture is American and where they have to work hard to navigate holding both Jewish and American identities. But by choosing to come to Israel and explore their Jewish heritage, clearly these teens have made and are continuing to make some very thoughtful choices about their Jewish identity and their place in the world at large. The next part of the journey is to define a whole new set of choices that will define their Jewish life. It is our goal for this experience to both encourage and inform those future choices. On behalf of all our staff here at NFTY in Israel, it was truly a privilege to lead these remarkable teens on this extraordinary journey.