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On Jewish Peoplehood

Posted on 07/28/2010 @ 07:10 PM

Tags: PDI

PDI Israel

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By Emily Frank, Rocky Mountain Region Program Director

Today, we spent the day learning, both with Israeli education students and by ourselves, at Oranim College in the North. Today was the first day that we had academically discussed the concept of Jewish peoplehood. While this might seem like a discussion that is strange to leave until the end of a study program, I think it was necessary. You cannot intellectually investigate the concept of the Jewish people, until you have explored it emotionally. From Jerusalem to Gush Etzion, Nitzan, Sachnin and Tel Aviv, we have seen so many sides of the Israeli people, we have had no choice but to reflect on how we feel as members of the Jewish people. So today, after a week and a half of emotional exposure to Israel (while academically exploring other facets of the country) we finally tackled the idea of the Jewish people.

The day began with a lecture by Dr. David Mittleberg. He talked about divergent and convergent dimensions of Jewish peoplehood. The most important component of this exploration is that of the globalization of the Jewish (and secular) world. The world is now flatter than it has ever been, and the ease of access and connection to worldwide culture is integral to the definition of Jewish peoplehood. He had a few points that were especially relevant for us in BBYO.

  • Most Jews have multiple identities. Jewish-American. Secular-Israeli. National-Religious. Those multiple identities are hard to navigate, since we often feel that we must pick one or the other. Rather, the most important part of those multiple identities is the hyphen itself, and the ability to connect more than one identity. We feel this as American Jews, BBYO employees, Jewish educators and (sometimes) Zionists, all the time. We must learn to appreciate not only the hyphen, but also the list.
  • In a recent survey, 45% of North American Jews who had traveled to Israel and who classified themselves as “Just Jewish” (not reform, conservative or orthodox) said that they had an emotional connection to Israel. This means that the other 55% of those same people went on an Israel trip that did NOT result in an emotional connection. This statistic impacts our Israel education methodology, our trip curricula and our understanding of the impact of Israel alone on the global Jewish community. We, as educators, must redefine our strategies for connecting our teens not only to Israel, but also to the global Jewish population. One of the most poignant lines from the lecture was “what happens here matters…” meaning; you can’t just drop a trip in Israel and expect them to find inherent meaning in the land. The trip, the curriculum, the staff and the schedule are all crucial components of making a trip successful
  • One of the most influential experiences for Americans can be travel to Israel – but so too, the most influential Jewish experience for Israelis can be travel to the US. We don’t often understand our own religiousness, Jewishness or culture until we have experienced it in a different environment. This is even more evidence that globalization of the Jewish community, and acknowledgement of the “flattened” world is essential to affiliation, connection and a positive relationship with one’s own Jewishness.

After the lecture, we divided into groups with Israeli education students from Oranim College. There were four groups that dealt with four components of discovering Jewish peoplehood and dialoguing about the differences and similarities between Americans and Israelis.

After lunch at the Oranim Cafeteria, we had a lesson with Rabbi Dr. David Starr, where we finally had the time and personal experience needed to delve into the timelines and maps that we’ve been carrying around with us for the past week and a half. The session was great – full of questions and information, and hopefully we will get to continue it soon, since we only made it through the first World War. Our final session at Oranim was a Hebrew lesson with Roberta. The shoresh of the day was “Mercaz” or center. The lesson itself was great, but the most important piece for many of us was Roberta’s decision to share with us where her concentration, or center, has been for the past few days.

Roberta shared that her son, who is a helicopter pilot in the Israeli Army, is in Romania doing training exercises with Romanian Air Force. On Monday, her son was in a line of helicopters practicing routes through a very mountainous region when the first helicopter in the line suddenly found itself between two very close mountains, and trapped in a low hanging cloud. The other units pulled back, but that first helicopter unfortunately crashed, almost immediately, into a mountain and burst into flame before it went down in the mountains of Romania.

Roberta’s son was in the third helicopter and physically, he is fine. However, the mental and emotional repercussions of what happened are unimaginable to us. He lost 6 comrades, including his commanding officer, whom Roberta referred to as her son’s “hero.” The pictures in the newspaper of the six Israelis lost in this accident showed their youth, as well as many of their young children, and brought to life the realities of an Israeli existence. Having children or a husband or family in the army creates a level of anxiety most of us cannot imagine, and the process of internalizing how that affects a person’s sense of peoplehood was shocking.

The pride that Roberta expressed in her son’s commitment to his country, and his fallen comrades, is a kind of pride Jewish American mothers don’t frequently feel. Her son’s decision to stay in Romania and maintain his role in his unit while waiting for the Hevre Kadisha (the Jewish burial authorities) to come and search for remains was one that brought her such conflicted emotions - one of which was an incredible sense of pride in her son’s commitment – and how many parents have children under 20 that inspire that kind of emotion?

Roberta’s strength as a mother is both heartbreaking and moving. We know life is different here, but belonging to the Jewish people here means something entirely other. Yes, it means risking your life – and the life of your family, or your husband or your son – and finding pride, hope and community inside the anxiety that is surprisingly rare. But it also allows for a commitment and a sense of unity that is unthinkable in our own lives. We listened to Roberta’s story, many of us with tears in our own eyes as hers remained dry. Those tears came from a place of belonging for us – her son and his unit sacrificing so much to learn to protect the land we are learning to love means that we are as much a part of this whole as Roberta… and that is not an easy emotion to comprehend.

Jewish peoplehood is complicated, but also wonderful and inescapable. Loving Israel is complicated. Being Jewish is complicated. Today, we ended the day with incredible dimension to our struggle, and tomorrow we start again, in a different place, with different complications.

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