Several years ago, after intensive negotiations, the government set up a program whereby candidates for conversion to Judaism may attend a pluralistic preparatory course, taught by representatives of the different movements, prior to undergoing a test and ceremony that conforms to orthodox standards. For the past few months I have been teaching in one of these courses, for new immigrant soldiers. The course is offered as part of basic training, and until the current round of budget cuts, was even available to soldiers who are Jewish already according to halachah, but who want to learn more about their roots.
The kids in my classes, about two thirds of them girls, are graduates of Naaleh, a program in which teenagers from certain communities (e.g., FSU, Argentina) come on aliyah in tenth grade, attending boarding school, in the hope that their families will follow them once they are established here. Many of them, of course, are halachically Jewish, but many are not. By the time they get to the army they have completed an Israeli high school education, and so have gotten a fairly strong dose of Israeli acculturation. This does not mean, however, that they know anything about Judaism.
Conditions at the base are good by army standards, but not exactly conducive to serious learning. They are doing this course eight periods a day of classes while also going through basic training; thus, they often arrive in class after a night of three hours sleep, or leave in the middle to do guard duty, etc. But these are kids who left home at the age of 15, voluntarily, to embark on an adventure in Israel. Some did it out of Jewish commitment, some out of Zionism, some simply seeking a challenge or a change. They dont have to be here, and they dont have to be serving in the army or studying Judaism. So they stand up during class if they feel they are falling asleep. And they ask a lot of questions and think about the answers and write them down.
This weekend Tami and I went along with them on a Shabbat retreat at a modern orthodox seminar center in the Golan Heights. Their officers girls a year or two older than they are are impressive role models for them: bright, thoughtful, open-minded, and deeply committed to their task and to their soldiers. Despite stormy weather, we had a lovely Shabbat. There were lots of special moments. One for me was seeing A., a tall, blond who looks just like the son of a Ukrainian army officer (which he is), dancing at the front of the line during the Kabbalat Shabbat service, his rifle banging against the backs of his legs (in basic training you are never allowed to part from your weapon, ever!). Another was when the commander of the program gave a little sermon after dinner, and ended with Shabbat Shalom! They responded in one voice, loud and clear: Shabbat Shalom, program commander, sir!!
Perhaps the most moving and interesting and strange experience of the Shabbat was hearing which song on their song-sheets they sang most eagerly (and frequently): a catchy pop tune by Uzi Heitman, the chorus of which goes like this:
Here I was born Here my children were born Here I built my home with my own two hands Here you are also with me, and Here also a thousand friends And after two thousand years the end of my wanderings
In their joyful singing of a song I never took seriously before, they reminded me, in case I had forgotten, just what Zionism is.