I spoke on April 2nd at MJE’s 15th Annual Dinner. This year we chose to honor Israel, and its importance and impact on not only myself my immediate family, but that which it has had on the MJE community and family as a whole. I’d like to share here the story I shared with those who were fortune enough to be able to join us for the dinner just a few nights ago. Standing at the podium sporting one of my favorite Lennon shirts, I spoke of a Sunday long ago that has stayed with me to this very day:
It was a Sunday afternoon in July of 2000 and 35 of us were gathered at Kennedy airport for the first ever MJE Trip to Israel. I saw one of the participants standing in a corner of the terminal, a guy in his 20’s w/ a large backpack swung across his shoulder. I went over to introduce myself. I said my name is Mark, I’m one of the Rabbis on the trip. He told me his name was Jonathan and that he had really had very little to do with Jewish life, and that this was his first trip to Israel. Like most of the others on the trip, Jonathan didn’t know a soul when it began. When I caught up with him on the return trip, he told me that felt now not only a phenomenally deep connection with the other members of our group and Israel, but also with Judaism itself. “A deep connection,” I thought to myself, from one trip? Even I was a little skeptical, but when Jonathan returned to NY he started to come around. He began to attend MJE classes, our Beginner’s service on Shabbat, and then very rapidly he became an entrenched part of the MJE community. A year or so later he returned to Israel–this time to study–which he ended up doing for many years until he eventually received simcha from none other than Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, to whom we paid tribute at the Annual Dinner on April 2nd. A few years ago, Jonathan officially made Aliyah, and he now lives in Israel with his wife Dena and their 3 beautiful children. He currently Co-directs the RRG Hillel Beit Midrash program at Hebrew University, reaching out to American students traveling to Israel for their first time just like he himself did back in 2000 on the first MJE trip. So many others from that first trip are today Sabbath-observant and sending their children to Jewish Day schools. I’m just speaking of those from the first MJE trip to Israel. We’ve had many more trips to follow, each and every year w/ over 400 participants in all, all of whom have been powerfully impacted in so many ways. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why we chose to honor Israel. She is our mentor, our guide, our promised land. She is the mother, the teacher, who reaffirms in all of us what it means to be Jewish, and we carry that with pride.
What’s her secret? What’s the magic of Israel?
How can just one week in the holy land affect such a dramatic change in people’s lives?
I think there are many answers to this question, but the most important one I believe is authenticity. You see to most young Jews growing up in America, Judaism is something like a fairy tale. You hear these stories of a great and glorious past but it’s just ancient history; it’s a relic of the past that for most American Jews has little or no relevance.
But that all changes when you go to Israel because when you’re in Israel you don’t hear about Judaism, you experience it.
In Israel you don’t just study or read about Jewish history, you see it. You live it.
You can travel, as we do each summer, through the famous Tunnel Tours – the tunnels that connect us to thousands of years of our history and place us right next where the holy of holies once stood in the Temple.
You can climb Masada and feel connected to our ancestors who fought off the Romans with their last breath. You can sit in Tzipori, at the very place where the Sanhedrin, the Jewish High Court, would sit and adjudicate Torah law.
We’ve gone on archeological digs and uncovered pottery dating back to King Solomon’s Temple over 3000 years ago.
We’ve travel to Tzfat each summer and visit the synagogues and graves of the very Sages and Kabbalists who composed the prayers we say every Friday night to bring in the Shabbos.
We’ve walk in the trenches of Ammunition Hill from where the recapture of Jerusalem began in 1967 and stood in the Golan Heights to see the miracle of Israel’s continued existence against all odds.
We’ve visited Israel’s vineyards and wineries, places that have been turned from literal swamps into the most beautiful farmlands and kibbutzin.
And so rather than just hearing stories about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in Israel we walk where they walked…
Rather than just reading about the Temple of old, we pray at the remaining Wall that surrounded it.
“Ano dome shemiyah l’reiyah.” The Talmud says, “you can’t compare hearing to seeing.” Seeing is believing, and that’s why Israel is indispensable to the outreach experience. Because Israel is the ultimate authentication of Judaism for the Diaspora Jew. It backs up everything we’ve heard and provides us with evidence for all those stories we listened to growing up. It’s the embodiment of all the “reasons” we were told to be Jewish.
When I asked Jonathan what hit him on the trip, he said that for the first time he saw that Judaism wasn’t just a bunch of stories, that it was real. That our people, our land, and our faith are a living and breathing reality, and he wanted to be part of it.
And that’s why Israel has been such an important part of our outreach at MJE and the focus of our Dinner.
On April 2nd and always we pay Tribute to our beloved Israel and recognize how she has served not only as a safe haven after the Holocaust 70 years ago but how she continues to inspire Jews from all over the world today.
We reflect on how Israel reminds all of us of our unique history and of our special connection to Hashem and His Torah.
Israel fills us with pride and serves as the greatest evidence for our Jewishness today. If the MJE trips to Israel have accomplished anything, it’s to bring this powerful message: Judaism is real and alive for ourselves and for hundreds of our Jewish brothers and sisters. MJE is proud to be here to help keep that message alive, and we hope to continue spreading it for years and years to come.