After just completing MJE’s Annual Trip to Israel I’ve got much to say about this place and its impact on those who visit. Between our two groups there were about forty participants in their 20’s/30’s. We traveled from up north in the Golan and the mystical city of Tzfat (home to Kabbalah) to Jerusalem. We spent time visiting holy sites such as The Kotel (Wailing Wall), the City of David and the holy city of Hebron. And though this is the thirteenth consecutive year I have led this trip, with some of the same sites year after year, Israel never fails to inspire me. The breathtaking views we saw as we hiked the waterfalls in the Golan, the magical and mystical feeling of Tzfat as we walked the narrow passageways, and the extraordinary archeology and spirituality of Jerusalem filled us all, newcomer and veteran alike, with a sense of awe, history and purpose that no other “Jewish experience” can match.
What is it the power of this country to inspire? A power that has propelled today’s most important Jewish philanthropists to invest 100 million dollars per annum on the most ambitious outreach project ever– Birthright Israel.
There are many factors that contribute to the awesome impact Israel has on us all. The youth, vibrancy and fast paced growth of this young country are just so compelling. Everywhere you go there is building and construction; young people come from all over the world and settle the land. I spent this past Shabbat in Ranana visiting my cousins who made aliyah, only to see thousands of others in their community who have done the same. More singles and families keep coming, building beautiful homes and bringing a spirit that is simply contagious.
Israel will never fail to inspire because it has got the goods, and I don’t mean Israel’s phenomenal technology and innovation. It’s got that too and yet another source of pride (my kids were blown away by Tel Aviv’s skyscrapers) but more importantly it’s got our history and heritage right here for us to see, feel and touch. The sense of Jewish pride one feels when seeing a chayal, an Israeli soldier, patrolling a street, also makes a huge impact. We brought our group as we do each year to an army base and we had lunch with the soldiers. “Strong but humble” would be the best way to describe the special people we met there. You felt in these young men a definitive sense of pride and purpose in defending their country, without the glorification of war or violence that often goes hand in hand. You felt that under better circumstances these soldiers would prefer to be somewhere else but given the reality there’s nowhere else they’d want to be. At the end of our visit I gathered our group together with the soldiers at the base to recite the mishebereach l’chayayalei tzahal, the blessing we say each Shabbat for the IDF, and as I began, one soldier put his hand on the head of another soldier who didn’t have a helmet or kippah. He responded to the prayer by saying amen and then a sweet thank you, to which I responded: “no, thank YOU, not only for your service but for filling us with such pride”.
Despite these wondrous experiences, I still must say that what I believe most profoundly impacts the Jewish “visitor” to Israel is the realness. As I said to our group at Shabbat Dinner as we sat overlooking the Kotel, so much of the Judaism we grew up with in America sounds like fairytales; sweet stories of our ancestors and heritage that may or may not be real or true at all. But when you come to Israel and you walk the streets, you touch the stones, you see the archeology and for the first time you are presented with some kind of real physical imagery of these stories. It all starts to come alive. As the old T-Shirts used to read: “Israel is Real”.
Our history literally is this place. It’s not just a nice story. And so for the diaspora Jew, Israel is the ultimate authentication and validation of Jewish history and of our Jewish heritage, and THAT impacts us. That, my friends, is inspiring no matter how many times you see it.