The picture of the paratroopers in the Old City at the Kotel in 1967? Captivating. The bar/bat mitzvah trip you took for two weeks? A wonderful memory. Netanyahu’s speeches at the UN? Meh. The international news media and Israel? Oy! Israel Engagement? A multifaceted, emotional and challenging endeavor.
As I write about Conan in Israel, I know you might think I’m a little behind. In my defense, I did know that talk show host Conan O’Brien was visiting Israel this summer. However, the actual show only came on in mid-September, about a week ago. I recently came across clips of Conan’s visit to Israel on Facebook. The first clip I watched was of Conan on Israel’s border with Syria. In that video, he was speaking to Israeli medics who help wounded Syrians get medical help and transport them to hospitals in Israel.
To my delight, the young Israeli woman who was being interviewed by Conan on the border was well known to me. Ziv was a “shinshinit” in Toronto only three years ago. She did a year of service in Toronto prior to the army, and we were fortunate that she worked at a branch of my school (among many other places). She was also the partner of the shinshin that my family hosted for part of the year they were in Toronto. Ziv and her partner, Nethanel, worked together day and night to promote Israel engagement through programming and relationship building with the families, students and adults in their synagogues, schools, camps and youth programs in the city. For us they were our sweethearts; they shared stories, ate our food, slept over in our houses (with their many shinshin friends) and became part of our families. Each year, the shinshinim in Toronto and around the world do amazing work for Israel engagement, but only for those that actually get to know and interact with these extraordinary 18-19 years old Israelis. Then, they return to Israel with their group to do their years of army service. Around our dinner table, Ziv always told us she would be a medic and work on the Syrian border helping those who need it. As Jews and as her friends, we are incredibly proud of her.
For any of you that have had the honor of hosting a shinshin or visiting soldier, you know that these experiences change your understanding of Israel. You understand the customs, music, humor, food and daily rhythms of Israelis differently when you get a chance to engage with guests from Israel. However, many Jews who do not have this experience have no idea how life-changing it is.
For those Jews who live outside of Israel, and who may not be affiliated with a synagogue, attend a Jewish day school, or join a Jewish camp or a youth group, Israel can be a scary country that is known only from the perspective of the news media. Many Jews may not visit the country at all or may visit once or twice in their lifetimes to do an organized tour. Some lucky twenty-somethings and millennials do the whirlwind birthright trip on their way to Europe or Greece.
It’s a country rich in history, culture, joy, music, fun, family, issues, yummy food, the best coffee, great beaches and wonderful, funny, forthright people. It’s a country worth knowing and really engaging with, from far or near.
And what Conan did during his visit and through these clips was let us know in another way that Israel is definitely worth engaging with.
His funny, honest interactions with beautiful Israeli women and handsome Israeli men, the beachgoers, the families that lay out a mat on the grass and picnic together with cake and Goldstar, the brilliant innovators in the high-tech industry, the medics and doctors who do cutting-edge work, the sellers in the shuk, the young men on the street, the Israeli drivers, and many honest sabras helped us see how unique, normal and engaging our country is in so many ways.
For $720, you can fly from Toronto to Miami in December for the winter break. For $1,300, you can fly from Toronto to Tel Aviv. Yes, it costs a little more. No, it might not be as warm. Yes — it’s more hours on the plane. But you can have experiences like Conan had in Israel and more: meet the people, take a picture with or talk to a brave Israeli soldier, drink coffee on the beach, be invited to the home of a fellow Jew, listen to Israeli music, eat shakshuka or even Thai food. We Jews can at least do what this Irish Catholic comedian did for us and our country — we can visit and engage with the Israel of 2017 — our homeland. Thanks, Conan.