We worked all last year with a group of teen leaders from the Galilee, to prepare them for a summer encounter here with their peers from their partner community in the US; then, over winter vacation, they spent 10 days there on a reciprocal visit. We have now started preparing a new group, for this summer (hoping that enough American kids will actually show up here...), and last week we held a joint session, for last years veterans and this years greenhorns. They met in small groups for the veterans to relate their experiences, then gathered for an open plenary of all 40 kids.
Many of the responses were really quite moving. It seems that the kids really did get it. They reported, unsolicited and unprompted, that what they got out of the experience was a new respect for American Jews. They saw that whereas they perceive their own Jewishness as something self-evident, organic, requiring no effort, determined by the environment, their Diaspora peers must make a conscious effort at Jewish involvement and expression. It does not come naturally. It takes great effort and great investment of resources. It requires making a choice that is often difficult. They were amazed to discover the elaborate institutional structure of Diaspora Jewish life, all supported by contributions and volunteers. They had always assumed that Diaspora Jews were less committed than Israelis, who put their lives on the line for their Judaism every day. And yet, it turns out that there is more than one way to manifest commitment. As I listened to the kids speak, I felt that the community had certainly gotten its moneys worth out of the program! In their new understanding of the Diaspora, these kids have gained a new understanding - or perhaps, have asked new questions - about their own Jewish lives. As a veteran secular principal from a different community commented, upon her return from an educators exchange with an American community, the experience made me wonder whether my grandchildren will be Jewish...
Which raises the question: what do American teenagers learn about themselves and their Judaism from their Israel experiences? Why do we send/bring them here? What is Israel supposed to be in their experience? a source of nationalist pride? a wholly Jewish environment? a potential refuge? an audiovisual aid for teaching Bible and history? the first flowering of our redemption? And what is the outcome we expect from such visits: aliya? philanthropy? AIPAC membership? increased synagogue involvement? motivation to learn Hebrew and history?
It seems to me that it is difficult for us to answer these questions clearly. Somehow we know that we want the kids to have a relationship to Israel, but we are not sure just what it is. And as Israel has become more modern, more obviously beset by the same social problems that trouble all modern societies; as we know more about Israel and therefore see it as a reality instead of as an ideal - ambivalence creeps into our patriotism. Nationalist pride - what about democracy? Jewish environment - but what if youre Reform? Refuge - but its safer in the US! Educational tool - when youve seen one rock, youve seen them all! Redemption - beware of messianic movements!
Perhaps there should be a certain symmetry in the Israel-Diaspora encounter: if Israelis can learn from Diaspora Jews the meaning of community, then perhaps Diaspora Jews need to learn from Israelis the meaning of sovereignty: not Israel as disappointingly-less-than-perfect, but Israel as a challenging, exciting set of dilemmas regarding the application of Jewish values and historical experience to the task of building a political state; not Israel as the answer, but Israel as a set of questions that challenge us to think about the meaning of Judaism outside of our own spiritual development, where it interfaces with hard decisions of the uses of power, of social justice, of war and peace. And thus, the encounter with Israeli peers and the understanding of their experience should perhaps be the heart of the Israel Experience for Diaspora visitors.