Shabbat Yisrael

This Friday we’ll be celebrating Shabbat together at Ohio Wesleyan.  After services, we’ll be sharing a meal and hearing from students about their travels to Israel.  Coincidentally, in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (Sentences) the Jews are presented with a list of rules they must follow to earn access to the land of milk and honey.

Unlike in biblical times, these students may not be aware of, let alone fulfill the mandates: “Six years you may sow your land and gather in its produce.  But in the seventh year you shall release it and abandon it; the poor of your people shall eat it, and what they leave over, the beasts of the field shall eat;” or, “You shall not allow a sorceress to live.”  It’s unlikely these were requirements for the summer teen tours and intensive study programs they attended.  Those who traveled with Taglit Birthright didn’t even have to pay for their trips.  That program, offers 10 day free trips (for a fee, you can extend your stay to do volunteer work or more extensive travels) to Israel for Jews between the ages of 18-26.

I was not eligible for Birthright because I traveled to Israel on two educational trips with my peers in high school.  However, I had a few friends who went on Birthright trips after college.  They saw the trip both for what it was, a once in a lifetime opportunity for a free international adventure, and what it could be, a chance to meet and network with other Jewish young adults, specifically potential life partners.  For some, Birthright was their first extended time spent exclusively with other Jews, learning about their religious and cultural heritage, and engaging questions about their Jewish identity.  Studies have shown that these may be more lasting benefits than being in Israel itself.

When I first announced Shabbat Yisrael, I received an email from a (Jewish) faculty member concerned that I was promoting Birthright.  She fears that Birthright promotes a Zionist ideology and asked that I consider other ways to present perspectives on Jewishness and it’s relation to Israel.  I explained, as readers of this blog already know, that I am not a unilateral supporter of Israel.  I believe, however, that traveling to Israel and having an opportunity to see first hand both the good (the history, beautiful landscapes, kibbutzim) and the bad (the wall, settlements, guns everywhere) is essential to seeing the Israeli-Palestian situation as a real-life situation.  For that reason alone, I think Birthright is a great opportunity.  True, one of the primary missions of the program is to engage Jews from around the world with their brothers and sisters in the Israel.  But, this does not necessarily imply blind acceptance of the IDF stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I trust that we will hear various perspectives about students’ travels to Israel.  Some will speak simply to being in a land set aside for Jewish people, a place where Hebrew is spoken and businesses are closed on Saturdays rather than Sundays.  Others will speak about the soliders they met, people their own age who are required to serve their country before heading off to college.  And some will speak of the tragic conflict that keeps everyone’s eyes and ears always open for suspicious packages and people.  We will grow from hearing all sides of their stories.

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