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.
Last week’s Torah portion, Mikketz, begins with dreams: Pharoah’s dreams that Joseph will interpret. The portion’s opening with dreams got me thinking about the semester. Specifically, I thought about how quickly it went, and how it feels like a dream as if the students arrived only three days ago because, were that the case, their departure would be just a dream. I know that you are ecstatic to have them back in your arms but rest assured that we miss them very much.
In many ways, the EIE semester is all about dreams: dreams of the individual, of the group, of the Jewish People, and of Israel. Over the course of four months, students get to think about their own life goals and Jewish aspirations. In conversation with students during the last days of the program, in listening to what they said to one another and to their teachers during the final program, I heard over and over again how this semester gave them time to think about the kind of people they want to be. This kind of experience creates personal time to think and dream that most other high school students back home don’t have. The deep questions – Who am I? Why am I here? What is my ultimate purpose? – become central to the EIE experience. In seeking answers to the questions, many dreams are born or reinforced.
We never know what the group will be like at the start of the semester. The students don’t know either. Very quickly, a group of strangers becomes a tight-knit community. They dream together to determine what will make the semester fun and meaningful. And then they make it happen. We saw early on that this was a group of thoughtful, smart, diverse students. We saw them become a community, whether it was hiking Masada or sleeping in not so warm tents during Gadna, in the dining hall at Tzuba and in the rain at Majdanek. I know that the group dreams of staying in close touch for years to come. It will be up to them to make it so.
EIE is about dreams throughout the history of the Jewish People. From the dreams of our biblical ancestors to the dreams of returning to our homeland, our students completed the equivalent of Jewish History 101, a college-level survey course. Like Salo W. Baron, the dean of Jewish Historians in the last century, EIE does not believe in the “lachrymose theory of Jewish history,” an approach that looks only at all that went wrong for us over thousands of years. Instead, we focus on the incredible accomplishments achieved by the Jewish People throughout history, the new inventions and ideas – from monotheism to instant messaging technology – discovered or created by Jews and the central role Jews played in culture, thought, ideas whether in the diaspora or in Israel. At the same time, we do not shy away from the difficult times and tragedies our People experienced, from the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem to the Holocaust, and try to understand the roles each played in our ongoing survival and, ultimately, thriving in the next chapters that followed.
EIE is about understanding and connecting to the dream and reality that is the modern State of Israel, a country that simultaneously aspires to be “light unto the nations” and “a nation like all other nations.” Our students discovered the miracle of Israel, the various Zionist ideologies, from political to revisionist, from religious to cultural, that worked to make the dream a reality. They discovered the challenges of being both a Jewish and democratic State. They heard about and experienced the argument over the definition of what is or is not legitimate Judaism. They learned about and celebrated the miraculous victory of the Six Day War and struggled with the challenges whose origins lie in the unresolved nature of the conflict: sovereignty and borders, control, compromise, a capital, etc.
Finally, EIE is about figuring out where you are and where you want to be in this picture. It is about learning to connect with Israel in a deep way, to love it for the place it is and, because it is our nature, to want it to strive to fully become the “light unto the nations” our Prophets call on it to be. Toward the end of the semester, students start to think about the question of returning to Israel. One thing that several students shared with me was what they learned about this during our alumni night. About fifty percent of those who joined us that night were either visiting Israel during their college winter break or were here for the semester or the year on an academic or professional program. Others chose to live her for a longer period of time or to move here permanently. Our students discovered that, unlike in my generation, they were not faced with a choice of taking a once-in-a-lifetime Israel trip or of making aliyah; rather, they could come back here on Taglit birthrightIsrael, attend a MASA summer internship program, come for a semester or a year in college, etc. The ways to come back and spend meaningful time in Israel are practically limitless. So, while they are back sleeping in their beds at home, I fully expect that some of the students are dreaming about when they can make their next trip to Israel.
So many of you have expressed your appreciation for what EIE gives to your children. Without your confidence in the faculty and staff, academic confidence and health, safety and security confidence, however, we could not create the setting and opportunities for your students to make the kind of personal, communal and Peoplehood discoveries they made. Moreover, to have this experience, students needed you – and the Jewish community – to make an enormous financial investment in their future Jewish involvement. Thank you for your trust and confidence, for your investment and your interest.
On behalf of all of us who are part of EIE, the URJ Heller High, best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom and the fulfillment of all of your dreams in 2017.
Rabbi Loren Sykes