Every Passover (no, I have not started Passover anxiety yet, I will let you know when I do), we begin the seder with the Four Questions. In our family, like many, the youngest child asks the questions; this was my sister-in-law’s role for many, many years until our generation started producing offspring and until said offspring got to the stage where they could read Hebrew.
Because our son James is one of the older cousins, his time for asking the Four Questions came and went rather quickly, to his relief I am sure.
Why we impose performance anxiety on young children in this fashion has always been a mystery to me. Perhaps it’s just a part of the Jewish tradition of inculcating the feeling of l’dor v’dor, from one generation to another. (I did it and suffered, and you will too?) At any rate, it’s a time-honored ritual that seems to have served the Jewish people well.
This week, James returned from a Birthright Israel trip, not with four questions, but with four sentences. While we can impose the obligation to ask the Four Questions, the four sentences our son shared with me don’t come out of imposition. They can only come out of the opportunity to explore one’s Jewish heritage, and to do so in the company of our Israeli counterparts.
James described the 10-day trip to us over the phone, walking us through each day. The last full day was spent in part on Har Herzl, the mountaintop site where many of Israel’s leaders are buried and the site of Israel’s military cemetery. The 30 or so Americans were with the eight Israelis who had been with them for five days of the trip. Meeting the Israelis and hearing their perspectives was one of the highlights of the trip for James.
As they were walking through the cemetery, one of the Israelis, a young woman, came upon the grave of a friend who had died in battle. The young woman was overcome. James was very moved by the fact that the other Israelis on the trip — who had only known each other for five days as well — gathered around her to comfort her, because, as James put it, “living there and going through their service created a bond between them and they knew what each other was going through.” And that’s when, in our conversation, he said four amazing sentences.
He said, “Standing there on Har Herzl, with these Israelis I’ve gotten to know, I finally understood why you do what you do. Here are Israelis my own age, who fight to defend Israel so that we have a place to go if we ever need to. And more than that, they do this because Jews have a right to their own homeland. And I haven’t done enough to help.”
It was a good thing that this was a phone conversation, as I am not sure what James would have done about the fact that tears were rolling down my face as I listened to him. Why was I so emotional? In part because I heard my own feelings coming back to me from another generation, because I knew that visceral feeling of identification had now been passed l’dor v’dor. And yes, because they were coming from my own child. And because yet another American Jew, a young American Jew, understands that we have a shared destiny with Israel and Israelis.
Moreover, it is precisely the opportunity to connect with his Israeli counterparts that allowed James to have his moment of insight. It is the best part, or the most effective part, of Birthright, in terms of creating an attachment to Israel, in a day and age when that attachment cannot be taken for granted, when it’s not necessarily automatic, and when it is not clear to Birthright alumni where to put their efforts once they get home.
Since our initial phone conversation, and in the course of writing this piece, James has expanded on his initial thoughts. What he meant by not having done “enough” was that the Israelis he met “give so much; serve, live within rocket range, and all I can do short of moving there is to, well, I don't know, be active in Federation and live as an exemplary Jewish American, by which I mean take pride in being Jewish, be a good American citizen, stand up for Jews, don't laugh off jokes that may be offensive. I'm not really sure what I can do but the point is I want to try.”
I’ve read a lot of articles about the follow-up after the Birthright experience, and I think James exemplifies the challenge for our communities in offering Birthright alumni meaningful ways to continue their connection to Israel and to the Jewish communities to which they return.
We need to be ready to meet young people who have felt that incredible connection where they are and give them the opportunity to help shape what we mean by Jewish community. Moishe Houses across North America are one place to start, and are gaining traction as places with low (or no) barrier to entry. Just last Saturday night, our Young Leadership Division sponsored a comedy night, and special emphasis was put on attracting Birthright alumni in the 25-30 year old age range — very successfully!
We also need to be ready; now that we have engaged over 300,000 young people with Israel in the 13 years since Birthright Israel was founded, to hear their visions and their hopes and dreams for the Jewish State.
For James (and I think this is, as he says, not just true for him), it's not just about wanting to make Israel safe for Jews.
He says, “that is a goal, but I also want Israel to be a kind of a Jewish city on a hill. I think other Jews of my generation want to have an Israeli state that they can point to as a reflection of their Jewish values. To me, not just a place where I can feel safe and comfortable, but one at peace with its neighbors (though obviously the neighbors need to hold up their end), that recognizes all kinds of Jews as equally Jewish, and that is respectful of and embraces its minorities.”
What I told James is that these are dreams and goals that middle-aged Jews, like me, whether here in New Jersey or in Tel Aviv, have as well. The important point is that these are topics on which to have and to continue to have discussions, across viewpoints and across generations.
The really great news is that the opportunity to have the experience of connection is not limited to the 18–26 year-old age group that is eligible for Birthright. It is when we — young adults on Birthright, or Masa, or teenagers participating in Diller Teen Fellows or the Gesher program in Arad, or adults on a mission to Israel — have the opportunity to sit and listen and struggle together with the issues that confront the Jewish people in the 21st Century, that we see how connected we are and how much we need each other.
And that is a tradition that has served the Jewish people well. Come be a part of the journey, the living bridge, and find your own four amazing sentences.