I first heard about NFTY-EIE as a 15 year old at camp. I had always identified strongly with my Judaism and felt like it was a very important part of my identity. But I remember feeling a disconnect between this feeling and my lack of knowledge. I was unable to answer even basic questions such as, “What is the Talmud?” and it drove me crazy. In high school, the primary draw for me was to try and close this gap between how I felt and what I knew. Fifteen years later, I have been a student, a מדריך (counselor), a general studies teacher, and finally, a Jewish History teacher, and it has had a bigger impact on my life than I ever could have imagined. While I still value the knowledge I have gained through EIE (the Talmud is the big book of oral law written down, a bit like American case law), and which I now try to pass along, I now value the experiential aspect of living in the world’s only Jewish country as well.
In the US, I always felt like having a strong Jewish identity was something I had to work hard to achieve. I went to camp and NFTY events, my family lit candles on Shabbat, and I even named my fish Moshe. Even with all of that effort, much of my life was still fundamentally American. However, in Israel, everything around you is Jewish. There’s a siren telling everyone when Shabbat starts. The graffiti says “עם ישראל חי” (the people of Israel live). When my wife takes a speed bump a bit too fast she says, “wow, we just went over Mt. Sinai” (in Hebrew of course!). While there’s much that I value about American society (and much that I miss living in Israel, seriously, the concept of standing in line MUST get here eventually, right?) it’s an incredibly special experience for me to be living in a Jewish culture.
The joy (and challenge!) of living in and helping mold the Jewish state is particularly meaningful for me, since I know how many generations of Jews never got the opportunity. Part of our Jewish history class that I love the most is the part focused on the modern state. How is it that after 2000 years of wandering, here we are again with our own state? After years of reading, learning, discussing and teaching about this question it continues to fascinate me. How does a Jewish state intersect with our own values as progressive Jews? How do we celebrate our uniqueness while making pluralism one of our most fundamental values? How do we apply our ancient texts to the challenges of running a modern nation-state?
I believe that good teachers don’t teach us what to think, but how to think. I love my job because I get to spend my days showing teenagers the wonders of ארץ ישראל (the land of Israel) and discussing these (and many more) difficult questions with them. And I’m sure my students have influenced my answers as much as I’ve influenced theirs. If you’d like to see a little bit more about what we cover in Jewish history class please hop on over to my blog where I do my best to summarize what we’ve covered each day, and where the students make their own comments. You can also find the students’ own blogs along the right margin. The state of Israel is an incredible, challenging experiment. I hope you’ll come be a part of it!