I have just finished guiding one of the most memorable Israel experience trips I have ever had the fortune to work with in my professional career. The participants of the “Schiffer Teens Adventure in Israel” from Temple Emanu-El, Atlanta, GA, led by their rabbi, Spike Anderson, were mostly first-timers and an absolute pleasure to guide. I never get tired of my holy work, my calling, even if I have been to the sites themselves numerous times, as it is always the first time for the participants. I see the light in their eyes and the formation of a positive Jewish identity through the connection with our land and people
Mark Twain is attributed with observing that, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Arguably, the best education is through the school of experience. One of the most effective ways of accumulating that experience is through travel, observation and participation.
One has to leave ones “bubble.” If anyone wants to try and grasp the Israel behind the often sensationalist headlines, one needs to experience it in all of its glory and complexity and form ones own opinion. There is simply no other way to feel an attachment to ones Jewish identity, as there is when one stands in Israel and touches the ground and meets the people. There is nothing that one can do in ones Diaspora classroom or synagogue thousands of miles away to give one a feeling for this land and for what this land means to the Jewish people, as well as all of its inhabitants. One has to experience Israel in order to gain clarity for the achievements and understand the many issues Israel is wrestling with.
During the 11-day-trip, crafted by Keshet Educational Journeys, Temple Emanu-El educators and myself, in addition to touring, the group met IDF soldiers, Israelis, both Jewish and Arab, from across the religious and nationalistic spectrum. They are exposed to many different viewpoints. The intense itinerary focuses on Israel as a modern dynamic society full of rich diversity and invites the participants to both grapple with the issues facing Israel and celebrate Israel’s achievements.
The “Schiffer Teens Adventure in Israel” complements both the Jewish identity formation and Israel education of the participants. Ambassador Dr. Michael Oren observed that,
What we do on college campuses (regarding pro-Israel advocacy) is too late. The process has to begin in Junior High school
Among the trip highlights was when we went to visit the Syrian border on the Golan where we were privileged to meet with Major (res) Yaakov Selavan and meet soldiers keeping Israel’s northern borders safe. Major Yaakov spoke about “Operation Protective Edge” and how much care is taken to avoid civilian casualties and the high moral standards of the IDF. He shared emotional stories recollections with us of “mateship” in the IDF both during the Yom Kippur War and today. He also shared with us accounts of the (largely unreported) humanitarian help that the people of Israel and the IDF offered Syrians during that country’s ongoing bloody civil war, despite the two countries having no peace treaty between them. Israel’s medical services alone treated more than 3,000 Syrians wounded during their country’s conflict. He said Israel did this, because this is simply the right thing to do.
We also we privileged to meet active duty IDF combat soldiers on Israel’s northern border. The soldiers were only a year or two older than the American participants. The soldiers all shared with our group how proud they were to serve in such a moral and ethical army. Hearing from the faces “beneath the helmet” deeply moved the students. Not only did it humanize these young defenders of our land, it broke stereotypes of the bloodthirsty Israeli soldier propagated on North American college campuses and throughout Europe.
Another stereotype was shattered during our visit to “Save a Child’s Heart” (SACH) children’s home in Holon. The Atlanta community, spearheaded by the Temple, have been actively involved with fundraising for SACH for years. The Save a Child’s Heart organization provides life-saving cardiac surgery and other life saving procedures for children from developing countries and the Palestinian Authority free of charge. In addition, the organization trains doctors to become pediatric cardiologists in their countries of origin. According to the mission statement on its website (www.saveachildsheart.org) is,
An Israeli-based international humanitarian project, whose mission is to improve the quality of pediatric cardiac care for children from developing countries who suffer from heart disease and to create centers of competence in these countries. SACH is totally dedicated to the idea that every child deserves the best medical treatment available, regardless of the child’s nationality, religion, colour, gender or financial situation.
So much for “Apartheid Israel.” Our group came to volunteer at the recuperation center where the children and their parents, or caregivers, from developing countries are either preparing, or recuperating from, the surgery that will allow them to live normal lives. Many of the group were deeply moved and asked why there is so little awareness and appreciation in the outside world for all the good that Israel does for the world. Daniel Gordis succinctly summed it up when he stated that, in addition to striving for the benefit our own citizens,
This country has become a country, with all of its imperfections, that sees as part of its purpose as looking out for other people.”
A core component of the trip was the Mifgash element. A Mifgash is a cross-cultural informal meeting. We met with Israeli Arabs, Palestinian Arabs, and Jewish Israelis including an Ethiopian Israeli. The exposure to a wide spectrum of opinions from Israelis of different religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds facilitated a broad based understanding of issues within contemporary Israel. A successful, thought-provoking Mifgash should negate the viewing of Israel through a simplistic lens. The Mifgash is a tool for inductively gaining knowledge of Israeli society and issues, and have a positive effect on all the participant’s identity. An educationally valuable Mifgash allows the setting of the Mifgash location in Israel itself to become an inseparable part of the learning experience.
It was fascinating for me personally to observe these bright teenagers who all self-selected into this program. There was a tremendous atmosphere of mutual toleration and acceptance. In addition they learnt that Zionism is not a monolithic movement that brokers no argument. Rather it is multi-faceted and dynamic, with factions on the left and right, religious and secular, and is a living movement whose uniting link is love for Israel. The “Schiffer Teens Adventure in Israel” participants will be able to take to the university campus the magic of their visit to Israel and the three rules for advocacy; knowledge, gained through both learning and first-hand experience, passion and delivery.