On August 29, 1897, the first Zionist Congress was convened in Basel, Switzerland, with 200 delegates from 17 countries in attendance and Theodore Herzl presiding. This week, exactly 125 years later to the day, Jewish leaders from around the world reconvened in that same location to mark this tremendous anniversary. Meanwhile on this same day, I welcomed 200 young adults from 18 different countries around the world who traveled to Israel to begin their gap year on the Aardvark Israel Program.
The symbolism of reconvening in Basel is very special, but the arrival these program participants in Israel is in fact much more powerful. There were no speeches or press coverage, instead there was the definitive act of showing up. These young adults have made a commitment to spend a year of their lives learning Hebrew, contributing to Israeli society, exploring their homeland, and deepening their knowledge of our heritage and the challenges which face the Jewish people today.
Herzl said, “Im tirtzu ain zo agada” “If you will it, it is no dream.” One of my favorite pieces of graffiti in Israel is a mural of Herzl painted in the center of Maaleh Adumim which says, “Im tirtzu osim po agada” “If you will it, we are actualizing dreams here.” I’ve always loved this twist on the father of Zionism’s famous words because no longer are we dreaming, but rather we are doing, we are creating, we are making our reality and shaping our future.
I can’t help but wonder what Herzl would have thought of the modern State of Israel. What speech would he have given to these students arriving in Israel at their opening ceremony? In Basel, he spoke about anti-Semitism, the dispersal of Jews throughout the world, the concept of the Jewish People as a nation, and Zionism as a unifying force which would strengthen our people and bring about peace. I suspect that the themes he would speak of today would be similar, but in 1897 the Congress gathered to design our future as a people, today these young adults have gathered in Israel to design their futures as individuals. The State of Israel and their experiences this year serve as tools to help them achieve personal development while also strengthening their Jewish identity. Their being here also furthers the Zionist cause they become more connected and committed to Jewish Peoplehood and Israel.
Theodor Herzl was a secular, assimilated Jew, yet he completely changed the trajectory of Jewish history. He was a young writer with no significant connections or influence within the political, financial, or religious spheres. Yet, a few days after the Congress he wrote in his diary that he had “founded the Jewish state” and further acknowledging that had he said that out loud he would have been laughed at but in years to come everyone would understand it. How right he was.
As my students begin their journey in Israel, I believe as Herzl did, that our future can be shaped by our dreams. I am also empowered by his accomplishments and as I look out at these young adults now here in Israel, I wonder which of them will be the next to change the trajectory of our people.