By David Alon, Jewish History Teacher
I came to Israel on a trip for college students in 1998, and they decided to play a memorable trick on us. We were all invited to orthodox families in Jerusalem for Shabbat dinner, and each group of students was given the address of the host which was within walking distance. When I knocked on the door, the father of the host family opened up and immediately looked at me in surprise.
“Oh, I know you! I remember you! It’s been so long, it’s great to see you again!” he said
I was puzzled since I was sure that we had never met before, and I responded that he had mistaken me for someone else perhaps.
“No, I’m certain that we know each other. Think back to when we met before.” he said.
“You and I stood next to each other at Mt. Sinai!” he continued with a smile on his face.
“I’m Yehuda.” he said “Shabbat shalom, welcome, come on in.”
I got the joke right away and laughed too, but the story has stayed with me to this day. Yehuda and I came from very different Jewish upbringings, and we certainly differed in our Jewish identities. However, on that night destiny had brought us together to share a Shabbat meal in the holiest city and capital of the modern Jewish state which was then a few months shy of its fiftieth birthday. I realized that Jews were drawn to this land and this country for so many different reasons. For the first time it dawned on me that not all Israelis were like the 22 year old, secular-right-out-of-the-army counselors, life-guards, and scouts that I had met when I was a camper at Camp Harlam in Pennsylvania. Never-the-less, it wasn’t until I made aliyah and lived in Israel that I truly understood this.
Even before that trip, I had already thought seriously about aliyah, but after this experience, I could not stop thinking about it. The challenge for me back then was that I couldn’t really articulate it, I just couldn’t put into words why I wanted to move to Israel. I just knew that it felt right. I always had a strong Jewish identity, but it was not something that came out of religious observance. It was more of a connection to Am Yisrael עם ישראל, the Jewish people. Yes I went to Hebrew school and my synagogue, and had a bar mitzvah, but I also remember attending the march for Soviet Jews in Washington in 1987, and my rabbi talking to the congregation about his visit to Russia and meeting with Soviet Jews. I distinctly remember celebrating Israel’s fortieth birthday in 1988 at the local JCC, and I will never forget being at Hebrew school in 1991 and hearing the alarming news that Saddam Hussein had fired SCUD missiles at Tel Aviv. These things all had a profound impact on me, and that’s before I ever visited Israel!
When I visited Israel for the first time on a NFTY trip in 1993, we were lucky enough to meet then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. I was excited to see the prime minister, but I didn’t appreciate it enough at the time. (In fact, I thought that Yitzhak Shamir was still the prime minister, and I was surprised when they introduced Yitzhak…Rabin!) Rabin didn’t speak for long, but I do remember him saying to us clearly that Israel is our home too, it’s the home of all the Jewish people, and he encouraged us do whatever we could to have a relationship with Medinat Yisrael and to fulfill the Zionist dream in anyway that we can.
Although I wasn’t saying it out loud back then, the aliyah spark within me had been lit, however it would take another ten years before I understood clearly that I was going to move to Israel. When I arrived “home” as a brand new Israeli citizen in 2003, it was both the realization of a dream, and also a rude awakening. As an oleh chadash עולה חדש my biggest challenge was not only becoming fluent in Hebrew, but becoming proficient in being “Israeli”. I had to learn the humor, the culture, the bureaucracy, and even the food (I didn’t even know what bourekas or kubeh or sabich were!). There was no better place for me to get acclimated than the merkaz klita (immigrant absorption center) in the desert city of Arad where I spent my first ten months. I was living alongside other young olim chadashim from Russia, Ethiopia, Argentina, France, Australia, the UK, and North America. I had no choice but to speak in Hebrew!
Similarly, the six months that I spent in the Israeli army in 2004-2005 was no less eye-opening. I was twenty-eight years old, and my commanders in basic training were all eighteen/nineteen year old girl soldiers just out of high school. Once again, I was mixed in with a large group of Russian, Ethiopian, Argentine, French, and North American lone soldiers, all of us a lot older than the commanders. None of this was easy, but it did wonders for my spoken Hebrew, even learning vulgar curse words and expressions that I didn’t know existed in modern Hebrew. In fact, it’s safe to say that my six months in Tzahal was my real entrance ticket into Israeli society.
After the first few years of ulpan, army, and teaching English in middle school, I knew that I wanted to do something to share with others my passion for Zionism and Israel, that’s when I found my calling at URJ Heller High (formerly NFTY-EIE). In my first week on staff at Heller High in the fall of 2006, I found myself in a 2700 year old Judean burial cave, on top of Masada, and hiking the spectacular Nahal Arugot in the Judean Desert. The next week we had a class where we all had to show up in togas, and by the end of the first month, I was helping the students write their own version of the Talmud and re-enacting gladiator games in a Roman amphitheater in Beit Guvrin. This was a high school like no other! The students weren’t just learning about Jewish history, they were living it!
For the first time in my life, I could truly articulate what I felt about Israel, Zionism, and Jewish identity. I finally understood that Judaism is a triangle made up of Am עם, Torah תורה, and Eretz ארץ. Am עם: The Jewish People. Torah תורה: The entirety of Jewish texts and learning. Eretz ארץ: The Land of Israel.
The Am עם–Torah תורה–Eretz ארץ paradigm is very much the center of Jewish education at Heller High. It is the foundation of every lesson plan and field trip. Once this Am עם–Torah תורה–Eretz ארץ foundation is set in place, it allows us to devote considerable time and energy to comprehending Medinat Yisarel מדינת ישראל, the modern State of Israel. Medinat Yisrael is a spectacular expression of Am עם–Torah תורה–Eretz ארץ at all times in all places! At Heller High we passionately teach Ahavat Yisrael אהבת ישראל, love of Israel and the Jewish people. We understand that true love and devotion is accepting that Israel has its challenges and flaws, and we don’t ignore them. Yes we teach about the conflict with our Arab neighbors, yes we teach about tension and senseless hatred among different streams of Jews, yes we explain about the efforts to promote equality and tolerance in the Jewish state. These are difficult issues to discuss, but how could we not focus on them? I’m grateful that Heller High continues to invite a diverse set of speakers throughout the semester to present their views on Israeli society and politics. We want our talmidot v’talmidim to hear these ideas, we want them to ask the speakers questions and challenge them. This is the essence of learning, and through it all the Am עם–Torah תורה–Eretz ארץ is there guiding us.
Looking back at my eighteen years in Israel, I can see that the Am עם–Torah תורה–Eretz ארץ triangle has been with me all along, even when I wasn’t aware of it. At different moments, one of these elements rises to the apex of the triangle and becomes a focal point, but it changes from time to time. Maybe it took me eighteen years to completely understand that we need Am עם–Torah תורה–Eretz ארץ to exist in harmony in order to build a healthy and functional society in the Jewish state? We all have a part to play, and it’s not always easy, but embracing the Am עם–Torah תורה–Eretz ארץ triangle is truly the way forwards.
A semester at Heller High lasts four months, maybe not a long time in the grand scheme of things, but still an enormous opportunity for our students to begin to see their Jewish identity through the lense of Am עם–Torah תורה–Eretz ארץ. I’m glad that I get to play a part in this endeavor and accompany them on their journey. Truth be told, they are also accompanying me on my journey. We all have a lot to offer each other when we open our minds and eyes and ears.
I still think about what Yehuda said to me so long ago, ““You and I stood next to each other at Mt. Sinai!” It opened me up to so many possibilities, and set me on a path that I’m still walking on today. I experience this mission everyday at Heller High.