As my family and I were waiting to board our plane in Phoenix where we visited for our vacation, we noticed a teenage girl and her parents exchanging sobs as they were bidding farewell to each other. My wife overheard something about the young girl going to Israel and since the parents were crying extensively, it seemed like this girl was going to Israel for a long time. The fact that the father did not wear a yarmulke seemed to indicate that he was not an Orthodox Jew. We had to find out where she was going. So we asked.
It turned out that she was attending a semester long program called Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim, which is a semester long high school program for 10th, 11th and 12th graders in Israel that is affiliated with the Conservative movement. She was flying alone to New York and then meeting her group in New York and flying to Israel. When we were on the plane from Phoenix to Israel, this young woman explained to me how she was the only young woman from Phoenix who was attending this program this year and how she was able to negotiate with the administration from the public high school that she attends to allow her to study in Israel for a semester. She is very actively involved in USY, the Conservative movement’s youth movement and she is very excited to connect with other Jews and to find her roots in Israel.
I think about how much easier it is for our Orthodox community to feel connected with our roots, with our tradition and with Israel. Virtually our entire community attends yeshiva day schools and Jewish summer camps. Virtually our entire community is within walking distance to a shul, and much of our community sends our high school graduates for a gap year study in Israel. We are blessed to find ourselves in communities where there is positive peer pressure to identify with and belong to Jewish institutions that are critical to our growth as Jews. And when we are challenged to spiritually grow and to aim for greater heights, we are challenged to do so as a community. When the Bnei Yisrael are commanded to slaughter the god of the Egyptians in this week’s parsha, it is a challenging edict, but each member of the Bnei Yisrael had the comfort knowing that they were doing this together with everyone else.
But not everyone is as fortunate. This young woman does not have the same religious support system as we do. She is doing something unusual for her community. She is stepping out of her comfort zone and pushing herself in a manner unlike most of her friends. I am Orthodox and I do not subscribe to many foundational principles underlying the Conservative movement’s religious ideology. Yet I admire the sincere yearning that she has to connect with God, the Jewish people and her homeland. I hope that when we are all challenged to step out of our comfort zones into challenging territory to deepen our commitment and we are challenged to do so alone, then we will respond like this young woman has done.