By Rabbi Loren Sykes, Director of Israel Immersives
The itinerary for the last week of NFTY in Israel trips focuses on Medinat Yisrael, the modern State of Israel. During this part of the trip, teens…
Take a graffiti tour of Tel Aviv.
Explore the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation.
Meet a Hareidi or Ultra-Orthodox couple and learn about life in a very different Jewish community.
Make a pilgrimage to Yad VaShem, Israel’s museum and memorial to those murdered in the Shoah.
Learn about the founders of Israel and our military heroes during their visit to the Mt. Herzl National Cemetery.
Along the way, they also walk through and eat in Jerusalem’s outdoor market, Shuk Mahane Yehuda, do the same in Tel Aviv’s Shuk HaCarmel, explore a stalactite cave, spend time at a beach, and go shopping on Jerusalem’s pedestrian mall, Ben Yehuda Street.
In addition to all the blessings of modern Israel they get to see and experience, our teens also spend this week learning about the challenges faced by the State of Israel and its citizens:
On the last day of the trip, teens will visit the Ezrat Yisrael, the Egalitarian Kotel. Although it possesses the same level of kedushah or sanctity as the “classic” Kotel (The part of the Western Wall we see in most pictures), it does not receive financial support from the government for religious services provided like siddurim (prayerbooks), Torah scrolls, or staff which the classic Kotel does receive. This is a chance to see firsthand the work that still must be done to achieve full recognition of the liberal streams of Judaism by our government.
During this week, the buses drive up to the Security Barrier. They witness that which both brought an end to 99%+ of all terror attacks in Israel and which literally divides Israeli citizens and Palestinians living in the West Bank. They learn about the protection the barrier provides to Israel’s citizens and the system of checks, inspections, delays, and more that Palestinians have to go through to enter Israel to work, go to the doctor, or for any other reason. They see the dilemmas and the intractable challenge faced by both sides in finding a solution to the conflict.
At Kibbutz Tzuba, our educator trainer, Oshrit Karity, introduces teens to a Palestinian tour guide from East Jerusalem, Adam, and a Tik Tok influencer, Eliran, from Petah Tikvah. They share their views about the conflict, about the Two-State Solution vs the One State Solution, and their feelings about the “other.” Just as it becomes clear how difficult this problem is to solve, it also becomes clear that positive interactions between Jews and Arabs are a pre-requisite for any solution to be achieved
After the panel, the group traveled to the Israeli Arab village of Ein Rafa. The teens get to meet Yasmine and Musa, good friends of NFTY in Israel and URJ Heller High, who talk about life as Israeli Arab citizens and the multiple identities they juggle every day– Israeli, Palestinian, British (Yasmine is from the UK), minority and citizen. Because Yasmine grew up in Great Britain (her story is fascinating. Be sure to ask about her), her English is fluent, making it much easier for the teens to understand her narrative. I know they listened carefully, and am certain they learned a lot. As they waited in line for lunch, I asked them about the morning programs and they were enthusiastic, felt they got a sense of the multiple narratives that exist here, and were excited to learn more.
After Yasmine’s presentation, we got to eat a delicious, authentic, homemade Israeli Arab meal of mejadara (lentils and rice with carmelized onions), salat aravi (chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, mint, and other herbs), tehina, harif (homemade spicy pepper sauce), and hibiscus tea prepared by Musa, Yasmine, and their kids. Despite the heat, everyone enjoyed the morning, learned, and ate a lot.
This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, begins with God telling the Israelites about the blessings and curses that will be articulated to them on two mountains – Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eval – as they begin to enter the Promised Land. Re’eh concludes by reiterating the laws related to observing the Three Pilgrimage Festivals: Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. On Sukkot, the Torah teaches that we are to be happy to the exclusion of all other emotions. Why would the Torah require us to be happy? Why does it need to tell us to exclude ALL other emotions? After all, the Torah usually only mandates behavior rather than emotion.
Momentary Joy is one of the two emotions reflected in the prayers, Torah reading, and Haftarah of Sukkot. Trepidation about the future is the other. We are commanded to “be happy now” and, simultaneously, “to worry about the future.” This dichotomy is similar to the Israelites hearing about blessings and curses on two different mountains at the same time! In difficult times like these, it can be beyond difficult to be fully present with the good we experience. It is also possible to be so focused on one moment that we forget the context and don’t pay attention to current or future challenges. Parashat Re’ah comes to remind us that we need to do both, and at the same time.
This summer, your teens got a taste of all the good that is today’s Israel: the people; the diversity; being the majority; the beauty of the land; our incredible history; and so much more. They also witnessed the challenges that face the citizens and the government of this young country. It is easy to run a trip to Israel that focuses only on the former – the good, to the exclusion of everything else. It is also easy to run a trip that focuses only on the latter – all that needs to be fixed or changed entirely for Israel to be the country to which we aspire. The goal of NFTY in Israel trips is to expose our teens to both – the beauty and the wrinkles; the push to innovate in realms like technology and the forces that hold us back from achieving civic innovation for all; the glorious history of Am Yisrael, the Jewish People, in this land and the difficulties we face as a sovereign majority to ensure that minorities are protected. By taking this approach, we believe we will help create deep, positive, long-term connections between North American Reform Jewish teens and Torat, Am, Eretz, u’Medinat Yisrael – The Torah, People, Land, and State of Israel.
Although it will take a few decades before we know if this approach is truly successful, I am optimistic that we will see it bear fruit in the future. Until then, I hope you get to enjoy the stories your teens bring back with them of a summer of fun, exploration, identity and knowledge building, pride, and joy in being Jewish and being connected to Israel.
P.S. Here are some recipes for preparing an authentic Middle Eastern lunch in case you are interested in giving it a try. For the salad to be more like what the teens had, just leave out the bread and the goat cheese.