As we approached the Old City of Jerusalem, the feelings came rushing back. The place radiates an unfathomable amount of energy. For me it was where I spent a lot of time as an olah chadasha (a new immigrant to Israel) more than 15 years ago. Back then, I worked as a URJ Heller High and felt as if I was experiencing the program as a student, wide-eyed and curious. Its energy will forever be in my blood.for
Having left that part of my Israel journey behind for a more “regular” Israeli’s existence, however, this trip was bringing me back full circle: The feelings of wanting so badly to be an integral part of the Jewish future, to comprehend what it means to be Jewish, but to also fit into Israeli society did not always synchronize with one another.
Israelis, as a general note, do not sit around contemplating their Jewishness. The students on Heller High come to Israel in order to do just that, though – seeing Israelis as the most “Jewish” you can get. Little do they know that the journey they are embarking on puts them in that same category of the ultimate Jewish contemplation. Coming back now, in a new stage and role, gives me the perspective of knowing who I am, where we came from, what it means to be Israeli, and to see the bigger picture at the same time.
Being Israeli is a direct continuation of all the times where we were trying so desperately to build ourselves into something, yet not always knowing how that would look. It is so easy to forget that aspect of where we live, no matter how close it is. Heller High students have given me the chance to see through their eyes how not to be complacent and how to ask both the daunting as well as the innocent questions of what lies in front of them, as opposed to getting so caught up in the mundane.
Here’s just one example of the questions of Jewish identity that students are wrestle with on trip: Should we “fit in” with the Greeks? Should we live like the Romans? Or should we shun them completely and focus only on ourselves? They're questions we ask ourselves today as Jews were asked, if not always outwardly than certainly as a collective subconscious, back when the Beit Hamikdash (The Temple in Jerusalem) was the center of our people.
As our students take their steps in the Old City and then head out to Masada where Herod built his getaway and where zealous Jews built a hideaway, I am deeply moved by their reaction to it all, and yet I long to know how they will answer those same questions: Will I just fit in, will I do it only when it is comfortable, or will I live Jewish as my whole being?
As our students make their journey through our history, I am even more confident in knowing that the most important thing to do as Jews is just that – to make the journey. If there is no journey, then there is no way they will come to a conclusion that will suit the integrity of who they are. In order to come full circle, you must remember who you are, go through the challenge of it, and come out looking back ready to do what it is you came here to do.
I pray and hope that their decision will be carefully configured with guidance from the giants with whom they learn from and will fit their personal needs and the needs of their community at large. Keep your eyes open and your mind sharp, for it really is all around us. My students have allowed me to be a learner right there with them as they teach me just how to do that, all over again.
URJ Heller High: Isaac and Helaine Heller EIE High School in Israel is a semester-long program for high school students in grades 10-12 in Israel. Registration is open now for the spring 2021 semester. Visit HellerHigh.org to learn more.