Dear Leffell Fellows:

Spending this week in Israel with you has been a blessing on countless levels. While some pundits speak about a malaise in Jewish engagement and other surveys give us reason to worry about the prospect of Judaism, each of you – individually and collectively – have buoyed my hope for our shared future. Your curiosity is contagious, your deference is exemplary and your embrace of the other is a beautiful representation of the values you hold and the future you aspire towards. Thank you for blessing me with your Torah.

The time we have spent together this week has stoked a memory from my childhood. On Shabbat, I was allowed to have sugar cereals. I was always most excited for the prize in the bottom of the box. My favorite treat was always the decoder ring that allowed me to solve riddles found on the back of the cereal box.

The moments we experienced together this week has been a decoder ring of sorts, for the complex and multifaceted matters we have begun to address and unpack. No moment has given me all of the answers. In fact, I leave with more questions. Still, by engaging we have decoded much together.

When we met with leadership from disputed West Bank areas alongside peace activists, we saw that these two representatives have far more in common than what divides them. We also heard their stories and heard within their voice their passion and shared desire to live in peace and harmony.

After we met with Arab leadership, we learned about obstacles that are not always on our frontal lobe and better understood how some postures can be interpreted.

When we studied with political scientists and historians about the context of announcements and decisions and their impact on the history of Israel, we could better appreciate that which did not resonate with us previously.

When our Knesset visit was cut short because of the death of a far-right wing MK’s spouse, and all members from the left attended the funeral, we saw that rifts are limited to policies and not personalities.

When we visited the Gaza border and saw the tears of those that suffered loss during wars and are traumatized by the constant rocket fire, paradoxically, we witnessed the fragility of life and the resilience to keep living and thriving.

When retired Israeli generals explained the benefit of granting third and fourth generation Palestinians “refugee status” because of the humanitarian aid they are able to receive, we better understood the significance of that title and its use.  Were Palestinians in Gaza to lose that status, their international and UN financial support would drop precipitously.

What all of these moments have in common is not a particular side of the aisle they represent nor a specific narrative. They are all moments when we were able to be present and learn. We used our human decoder rings of being present and listening to learn more and appreciate the prism that is Israel.

Decoding life is not about cereal boxes and hidden messages. Cracking the code begins with subjecting yourself to the conversation in the first place. Were you not here, you could not hear. We realized it is more about how you take to flight and less about where you land. Being a part of this prestigious fellowship enables you to add your valuable voice to the advancement and progress of this sacred cause we share.

As you are about to take the baton of Israel advocacy, use your human decoder ring and be physically and emotionally present. Aim to listen actively, appreciate different narratives, celebrate differences and believe passionately in your cause.  Use the tools you gained this week and throughout your fellowship, to be present and to unpack complexities. Do not fear the other. Embrace the other and look into their eyes, hear their voices and contemplate their perspectives. Do not be afraid to push-back with kindness and respect when you disagree. Isn’t that the root of the tradition you have been studying on your spiritual journey?!

In your rabbinate, having an open mind, a soft heart and an insatiable curiosity will serve you well in shaping tomorrow’s Jewish world. Learning with and about you in Israel, I am honored to call you colleagues and excited for the hearts and minds you will inspire with your gifts and with your unique decoder rings.

Hazak Ve’Amatz!

With deep respect and appreciation,
Your friend and colleague,

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

*The Leffell Israel Fellows program at AIPAC is a two-year fellowship designed to train rabbinical students from all major streams of Judaism on Israel education and advocacy.  This program is made possible thanks to the partnership of the Lisa and Michael Leffell Foundation.