Sitting on the plane returning from MJE’s annual trip to Israel, I ask myself the same question every year: What is it?
What is it that makes such an enormous impact on those who travel to Israel? What is it about this place, that in just a week, can radically transform a person’s perspective on Judaism?
There are many answers to this question but one is evidence. Israel provides evidence of the authenticity and realness of Judaism.
To many young Jews growing up in America, Judaism is presented as something almost like a fairy tale. We are told stories of a great and glorious history, but it’s a relic of the past that may or may not be true, and, for most, has almost no relevance to everyday life in America.
Much of this changes when you visit Israel because in Israel you don’t simply hear about Judaism, you experience it yourself. In Israel you don’t just study or read about Jewish history, you see it. And seeing is believing.
As in every year, the MJE group traveled through the Kotel Tunnels connecting us to thousands of years of Jewish history and placing us in the closest proximity to where the Holy of Holies once stood in the Temple.
We visited the city of Hebron and walked where our Patriarchs and Matriarchs walked and we prayed at the cave where they are buried.
We walked through the City of David where archeologists have found evidence of David’s palace. We saw the coins minted from that period and uncovered pottery dating back Solomon’s Temple, the First Temple era, over 3,000 years ago.
We traveled to the holy city of Tzfat, visiting the synagogues and graves of the rabbis and kabbalists who composed the prayers we recite every Shabbat. We sat in the synagogue of Rabbi Yosef Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, that we continue to refer to and rely upon for our daily Jewish living.
In Israel you get to see — not just hear — and so Judaism comes alive. Things begin to feel more real and more authentic. As the Talmud remarks: “Ano domeh shemiya l’reiah”: you can’t compare hearing to seeing. Seeing is believing.
And it’s not just the ancient sites. You can feel the same sense of realness, authenticity, and even holiness at the sites which commemorate the modern day miracles of Israel.
In the Golan Heights, where we also stood this week, we saw where the battles between Syrian and Israeli tanks took place in 1967 or in the trenches of Ammunition Hill where the IDF prevailed against the Jordanians.
We sat mesmerized listening to the riveting story of David Sprung, who fought in the Six Day War and took part in the recapture of Jerusalem and the Old City. The scene he described of the soldiers, religious and secular, crying at the Western Wall, was so powerful.
The feeling of God’s hand behind those miracles, behind the creation of the modern State is palpable at these sites and can be felt throughout the land. That is why for the last 16 years I’ve been bringing groups of young American Jews to Israel. Because traveling in Israel authenticates our history and our faith. Rather than just hearing stories about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in Israel you see where Jewish history began. Rather than just hearing about the Temple of old, you can pray at the Wall which surrounded it. And if there was any doubt as to the miraculous nature of Israel’s modern day events, the country is filled with witnesses to those miracles.
Israel is the ultimate validation of Judaism for the Diaspora Jew. The country and its holy places provide much needed evidence for all those stories we listened to growing up, all the “reasons” we were told to be Jewish. What may have sounded like a fairy tale in Hebrew school becomes a reality in Israel.
The question for those of us who traveled there and returned is: Now what? How will our lives be affected? Will we be any different now that we’ve experienced this new reality?
If Judaism isn’t just a bunch of fairy tales, if Jewish history is real, then our attitude and our Jewish life should become also more real, wherever we may live. For sure it’s easier to feel that realness and authenticity in the holy land but if Judaism is the real deal then our lives needs to reflect that, no matter where we reside.
.God is everywhere and the opportunity to spiritually connect through Judaism is always there, no matter where we live.
We may not have the Kotel, the Western Wall, but we do have synagogues, places to pray and institutions at which we can take classes and grow in our Jewish knowledge.
We may not have ground that is holy but we do have Shabbat to bring holiness and sanctity into our lives.
In New York, we also have the opportunity to be part of an extraordinarily active and vibrant Jewish community where we can express our Judaism and remain connected with one another. Community is key wherever we live but it’s even more vital in the Diaspora where we don’t have the constant reminders of our history and of our mission like we do in Israel. In a sense we need each other that much more, to remind each other how real and special Judaism is and how critical it is for us to stay connected as a one united people. There is no greater lesson to be taken from Tisha B’av, the national day of mourning we commemorate later this week.
After the tan wears off and the memory of the realness of Israel begins to fade, it is critical we find new ways to grow ourselves Jewishly. Whether it’s taking a more active part in the community, coming to a Shabbat Dinner or signing up for a class to deepen our knowledge of Jewish history, we thankfully have many options. Israel is the ideal place to discover our Jewish roots but it’s not the only place.
A student of the great Chasidic master, the Kotzker Rebbe, approached his teacher and asked him: “Rebbe, where can God be found?” To which the Kotzker answered: “Wherever you let him in.”