This evening we spent an extended period of time getting to know our new Israeli companions, who will be participating on the Taglit-Birthright Israel: Mayanot Newsroom to Newsroom trip with us for the next few days. Some of the Israeli men and women are students, others are currently enlisted in the army.
After a number of “ice breaker” games — think, lots of sitting in circles, memorizing names and exchanging silly childhood anecdotes — we had an opportunity to break up into smaller groups to discuss what participants feel has been meaningful on the trip so far.
Our group swapped stories of the kind of circumstances that brought each of us to Israel. Some had felt ostracized as the only Jewish member of his or her hometown school; another felt the living history all around us gave a more comprehensive context to his Jewish upbringing.
Still others felt conflicted by what they had seen so far, and wondered what it would be like to live in a country where each border requires constant military attention and military service is compulsory.
As our conversation meandered, a theme emerged: Will the number of Jews living outside of Israel — in the United States, specifically, for example— continue to diminish as these communities have in recent history? Must practicing Jews who wish to preserve their religious identities move to Israel to be really Jewish? Can a Jewish family sustain it’s own religious identity — and the religious identity of future generations — without putting down Israeli roots?
One felt that the choice was simple: If you wish to truly be Jewish, and to practice Judaism — you must move to Israel. For this soldier, the historical trends provide all the evidence he needs: Jewish populations across the world continue to diminish.
For the other soldier, the answer was more complex. He felt that practicing Jews in other countries played important roles in their communities across the United States, teaching others about their culture, worldview and beliefs.
Before we could come to an even remotely satisfying consensus or at least stopping point, the meetings were adjourned for the evening. But amid the emotional discussion, there was a pervasive vibe that this talk is not one that can be solved in one hour of one evening in one room among new friends. It’s a conversation that should continue, a serious debate among Americans who may have been born one way or the other — but who have yet to decide how and if they will leave their imprint on the next generation of young Jews.
On to Jerusalem, tomorrow.