The Weber School is trying to reinvigorate the traditional senior class trip to Israel with help from the Center for Israel Education.
The 53 Weber seniors going to Israel during winter break in December are meeting four times with educators and experts from CIE — three times before the trip and once after — to maximize the enduring educational value of the experience, which is coordinated with Jewish National Fund’s Alexander Muss High School in Israel.
“The greatest risk facing our community today is a certain passivity and an ignorance, a wholesale ignorance, on the part of North American Jews about what Israel is about and where it came from,” Rabbi Ed Harwitz, Weber’s head of school, said during the first of the three programs Aug. 31. “We’re going to provide the opportunity but also the challenge to be able to do what 95 percent of all North American Jews cannot do: to articulate what their relationship to Israel is with some meaning and purpose in an elevated way.”
A key element, Rabbi Harwitz said, is to transform the Israel trip, which includes a week in Poland, into something much more than a graduation reward.
To that end, nearly three dozen seniors had a catered falafel lunch and spent a couple of hours delving into the history of Zionism with Weber Hebrew teacher Michal Ilai and CIE Vice President Rich Walter.
Ilai led the students through an exploration of their feelings about Israel and Zionism. Students were asked to read and affix comments to Israel-related statements taped to the walls of the cafeteria, such as:
• “I am not sure I understand my connection to Israel, but I am ready to explore it.” (The responses included “I’m very excited for my first trip to Israel,” “I already am connected” and “I’ve NEVER been so ready for anything before. My connection to Israel runs deep, but there is still more to be uncovered.”)
• “I don’t want to criticize Israel. As a Jew I must always stand by its side.” (“I will call them out if need be” was one of a half-dozen replies.)
• “I love that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. I love that it is a place that is dedicated to equality, fairness and inclusion — even though sometimes the government may do things that I don’t agree with.” (“I like this quote,” “I agree” and “Is this true?” were among the responses.)
• “The reason we can be comfortable around the world as Jews is because Israel is here.” (“It is nice to know there will always be a place for Jews,” “Israel is a safe place,” “Gives us a safe haven to be whatever Jews want” and “FACTS,” students wrote.)
Having delved into their individual feelings about modern Israel, the students broke into groups to study what has been written about the Jewish homeland through the millennia, from the Torah and the Passover haggadah to current Knesset member Yair Lapid, the head of the Yesh Atid party.
Those discussions produced four student definitions of Zionism:
• “The belief that Jews will have their own home … by any means necessary.”
• “Supporting the existence of a Jewish state (Israel) that is peaceful no matter what.”
• “To support a Jewish state in the land of Israel.” Weber Delves into Zionist History
• “Being connected to our homeland in some way by culture, values, history, etc.”
Walter emphasized that even David Ben-Gurion, speaking in April 1950, didn’t try to define Zionism. Instead, Israel’s first prime minister explained the essential background for Zionism: Love of Israel.
“Love of Israel means love of the state of Israel as a mother loves her child, even if it is naughty, even if at times it does something that is not right,” Ben-Gurion said.
“You really can be furious with Israel at certain times,” Walter said. But that fury “has to come from a point of at least having a love.”
Ilai asked what can be learned about the Jewish connection to the land from written yearnings for Israel stretching over more than 3,000 years. “That it’s always been there,” one student said.
“It’s always been there,” Ilai said. “That’s beautiful.”
Walter guided the seniors through the history of how nearly two millennia of exile led to the modern Zionist movement and the birth of the state of Israel. He noted that the First Zionist Congress concluded exactly 121 years earlier by adopting a declaration that Zionism sought a legally assured home in Palestine.
Zionist yearning did not produce a political movement until the late 19th century for reasons including the Muslim Ottoman Empire’s control of the land of Israel and the religious belief, fueled by the slaughter of Jews in revolts against the Roman Empire, that only the Messiah could lead the return to Israel.
Documents such as newspaper articles and an editorial cartoon demonstrated that the Jewish Enlightenment in Europe, pogroms in the Russian Empire, and
political anti-Semitism in Western Europe inspired Jews to strive for change.
Walter said Jews realized that “we don’t have to live in exile anymore.”
Through research and exploration of these sources, the students found that 19th century Jews in Europe had three major options: Go to Palestine; leave for another overseas destination, usually the United States; or stay and try to improve their circumstances.
The toll of the Holocaust shows that most stayed. More than 2.3 million immigrated to the United States from 1881 to 1928, a period when 167,000 Jews made aliyah. Only in the last four years of that period, after the United States enacted tight restrictions on immigration from Eastern Europe, did more Jews go to the land of Israel (67,000) than the United States (43,681), according to a chart Walter shared with the students.
For the most part, Walter told the students, those who made “the choice of self-determination and Zionism were young people like yourselves. … So never underestimate the power you guys can have.”
Walter noted that CIE President Ken Stein, set to lead the second session with the Weber seniors Oct. 10, likes to say Zionism “was about Jews becoming the subject of their own sentence and to stop being the object of someone else’s.” “Being the subject of your own sentence,” Walter said, “means sometimes making decisions that are difficult and that not everyone agrees with.”
Provided by the Center for Israel Education (www.israeled.org).