Rabbi Loren Sykes is the Principal of the NFTY-EIE High School in Israel. In these weekly postings, he gives a description and rundown of what the group is doing day to day, which he hopes sheds some light on what the EIE experience is like.
In writing about our experience at the Kotel recently, I mentioned our ancestors’ experience at Mt. Sinai. The moment of revelation is dramatic, replete with audio and visual effects from lightning to sound become concrete and visible to the mountain ablaze with the Divine Presence. While reasonable to expect that the chapters following the giving of the Ten Commandments would be equally, if not more dramatic, they are not. The Torah, in Parashat Mishpatim, immediately turns to expanding on the Ten Commandments, giving us verse after verse of civil law that forms the basis of ancient Israelite civil society. Why do we go from high drama to the mundane rules of daily life?
Among the many lessons of this immediate shift, from transformational to routine moments, is that every day is not Mt. Sinai. While exceptional moments are important, they are not the norm. Moments of transformation like Mt. Sinai serve as markers, high points, in our regular daily lives. Another message is that routine is important. Routine provides us with a framework so we know what to expect from one part of our day to the next. The absence of routine is exhausting. It makes it difficult to feel at home, to feel comfortable. Maybe that’s why events like Mt. Sinai punctuate codes dealing with daily life.
Settling into EIE is similar to the shift between Mt. Sinai and the chapters of laws that follow. Students are incredibly excited to arrive in Israel, there is no routine. On the one hand, it is fantastic to be here. On the other hand, however, it is rare to feel immediately comfortable since there is no routine, nothing that you can rely on to expect. No amount of ice breakers, group conversations orientations, etc., can replace the comfort of familiar schedules and routines. That is what happens in the second week of EIE. We experience the comfort of a regular schedule: Hebrew and Jewish history in the morning followed by General Studies in the afternoon. There are tiyyulim – field trips and hikes – that are exceptions that change up the routine, yet, they almost always fall on the same days of the week. In the end, even changes to the routine become, well, routine.
Our first regular week of EIE Spring 2016 was no exception. Students had regular days. I call them regular because they are certainly not normal, at least not when it comes to academic schedules that participants know from home. Our school day starts at or around 8 AM and continues for some until 7:30 PM. Then comes homework and an evening activity. Friday is either a day for tzedakah projects or hikes. By the time Shabbat arrives, everyone is exhausted and looks forward to the chance to rest.
This week, there were three regular academic days, two tiyyulim and Friday was a field trip day. Our first tiyul was to Tel Gezer. There, we learned about ancient Canaanite society and religion. We also started learning about our patriarchs and matriarchs, focusing on Abraham’s entering the land. Jewish history classes this week moved quickly through the narratives of our founding families to the exile in Egypt, from the Exodus to Mt. Sinai to the entry into the Promised Land by led by Joshua. Our second tiyul week took EIE to the Sataf. Here, students delved into the challenges of going from a wandering group of families to a nation. They looked at questions ranging from conquest to building economies, from civil laws to foreign policy. They performed skits based on sections of the Book of Judges and, using verses from t
he Bible as their guide, re-enacted the conquest of Jericho and the destruction of the city walls. On Friday, EIE went to an archaeological site and helped dig and search for artifacts. This tied into the learning about the questions of the historicity of the Bible and the uses of archaeology in national narratives and politics.
By the end of the first full week, we have covered an enormous amount of Jewish history. While a challenge to do so, students learn both the breadth and depth of the subject. It forms the basis for every section of learning that will follow on EIE, and in their Jewish journeys. In some ways, this week is overwhelming for the students but it serves to set the routine and rhythm for the weeks to come, making it easier to manage for students and, consequently, making it even more enjoyable. Our week contains almost Sinai-esque moments of power, like the magnificent view from the top of Tel Gezer, to moments of beauty found in routine when confidence grows for a student in discovering that they can handle an academic day that is eleven hours long, not including homework time.
Finally, it was a personal pleasure to spend time with our students and get to know them better. I learn about what they enjoy, what is challenging, what is going well and what they are doing better. It is a privilege to work with them.
Rabbi Loren Sykes