One of the most interesting and seemingly successful projects undertaken in recent years to infuse a real feeling for our People and our land into the hearts of Jewish collegians is Birthright Israel. The program allows a Jewish young adult to tour Israel for 10 days for a mere $250.00. Meals, hotel accommodations – everything is included. Sadly, this year  the program attracted a great deal of media attention, not for its value, but rather because the Reform movement and the Hillels elected to cancel their trips in view of the current crisis in Israel.
My youngest son, Levi, was one of the participants in this recent trip that is at the center of much controversy today. Never having had the opportunity to visit the State of Israel, Levi had looked forward for years to that moment when he would be able to finally walk the land of our forefathers. As with many young Jews, the opportunity never arose, either because of scheduling or because the finances for such a trip were not available. When he heard about Birthright Israel he jumped at the chance.
Let me at this juncture address the tremendous controversy that now surrounds the decision by Jewish organizations not to send their youngsters this time around because of safety concerns. I write these remarks as a father.
My second son, Yosef Yitzchak of Blessed Memory, was studying for his Ordination in Israel when the Gulf War broke out. I received a call from him in which he told me that many Americans his age who were in Israel were making a mad dash for the airport to catch the first flight out. You may recall there was a real concern at the time that Sadam Hussein was going to use chemical warfare against the Israeli populace. Yosef told me of friends who had heated arguments with their parents back home. The parents were insistent that they return to the States immediately fearing the worst. The students wanted to remain. In most cases the parents prevailed and their children returned home. Yosef wanted to know what I felt he should do.
Please don’t get me wrong. I love my children as much as any parent. Yet the thought that my son would leave his fellow Jews, his fellow Jews who had courageously elected to live in our People’s land, especially at a time when they seemed threatened, was to me appalling. Life can only have real meaning if we stand up for what we believe. Israel, our homeland – this is a foundation of what it means for me to be a Jew. I have always taught my children about the special role that small piece of land plays in the life of our People and in our own personal lives as well.
And so I told my son Yosef that, if he really wanted my opinion, it would be a disgrace for him to return home when Israel is being threatened. I as well indicated to him that he would have to decide what role he wished to play in the coming weeks. Should he volunteer for the army or stay on the home front – this was his decision to make.
Years later, Yosef thanked me for my advice. While friends of his still carried the shame of leaving their fellow Jews and our homeland in a time of crisis, he knew he had done his share during those perilous times. In retrospect it would have been so much easier for me as his father to have lost him in the throws of battle in Israel than to have lost him, as I did but a few years later, as a result of a mishap after minor surgery right here in Chicago. His death, tragic though it would have been, would have nevertheless had some meaning, some purpose.
And so, when the opportunity arose for Levi to go to Israel for ten days, the issue of the present crisis never crossed our minds. Levi spent weeks preparing his backpack ready to have the time of his life.
When he returned, the story he had to tell was filled with both exultation and despair. Arriving in Ben Gurion airport he was so overcome with the moment that, when he left the plane, he naturally got down on his knees and kissed the ground reciting the shehechiyanu. He felt as if the ground itself was returning his kiss welcoming him home. Filled with exultation, he noted that others in the group were looking at him somewhat quizzically. He later told me that he felt they were asking themselves, “What’s with this guy? Does he think he’s the Pope?” For Levi, however, that first moment in Israel, that moment when his foot first touched the soil of our Holy Land, was unforgettable. Kissing that blessed land came naturally. It was as if he was in the arms of a long lost relative.
Levi experienced a similar situation when he first went together with his group to the Kotel, the Western Wall. Seeing the Kotel for the first time, touching its sacred stones, he followed the tradition of cutting his clothing in memory of the destruction of the two Temples and the collapse of the Jewish Commonwealth. He literally felt the pain of the Galut, the Diaspora, at that moment. Looking up to the Temple Mount, he never realized until that moment how close this was to the Jewish people and yet, in a political sense, so far away. To have the land, won through the blood, tears and sacrifice of so many, and still not have the Temple Mount – this was the Galut, this was the Diaspora. The pain Levi felt was real.
Yet, for others in the group, it was a time for political debate. Coming to the Western Wall, stated one of his fellow travelers, was an attempt by the present government to win our support through crass sentimentality. This statement evoked a conversation in which this same individual waxed poetic about the importance of removing the present government of Israel and replacing it with a Labor government.
Levi found this entire conversation bizarre. He hadn’t come to Israel to discuss the political intrigues of the society. He had come home, home to the land that G‑d had promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and, on through the centuries, to Levi Mayeer Lefkowitz. This was for him a time of spiritual and national renewal and reawakening, not a time for political debate. He had come to breathe in the wonderful air of Israel, not to debate politics.
My son, in his recounting of his adventures, told us of the many special sights he visited. The graves of our ancient Rabbis, Massada, the Galilee. At every turn he felt his Jewish soul stirred as never before. His trip, through the good offices of this wonderful program, was one he would never forget.
One final note. During part of their travels, the group was accompanied by a number of Israeli soldiers. When my son told them how he respected them, individuals who proudly bear arms in the defense of the Jewish State, they were confused. In the course of conversations with one soldier in particular, he learned that this young man had decided to leave Israel and come to the United States. When Levi tried to explain how different it was for a Jew in the United States, this soldier exclaimed. “History is history. We have Abraham and you have George Washington. What’s the difference?” Levi told me, “How could I explain to this fellow Jew, raised in the Jewish homeland, that it would be reasonable to assume that George Washington had little to do with the ‘Hebrews’ of his day. One could be quite confident in assuming that people of the Jewish Faith were not regular visitors to our first President’s home.” Levi’s view of Israel and this soldier’s view of Israel were quite different. Indeed, Levi’s view of Israel and that of many of his co-travelers was perhaps even farther apart.
My son came home from his wonderful adventure astutely aware of the tremendous divide that exists in American Jewry. The sense that I am a Jew, a member of an ancient People which has walked the pages of history these thousands of years imparting some of the greatest elements that form the very foundation of the best of Western civilization, of humanity as a whole for that matter, is simply absent from the minds and souls of so many American Jews today.
No doubt Birthright Israel is a valuable and special program. We can only pray that its intent, to arouse the Jewish mind and heart of our young, our People’s very future, will be realized.
Postscript – My hopes expressed for Birthright Israel in 2001 have not been realized. The Jewish college student of 2018 is just as likely to attend an anti-Israel rally, than one in support of Israel. Recently Birthright Israel dropped the American Reform movement from its program for lack of participation claiming students would rather participate through Orthodoxy.