(They certainly used an Israeli decorator to design the interior – complete with "Star of David" wall-to-wall carpeting and an emphasis on function over comfort. It felt just like being in a Jerusalem hotel lobby. The next best thing to being there.)
Today's visit was part of a trip to Washington of the Confirmation class I teach (10th graders). The students were treated to a briefing from an embassy staff member who talked to them about her work to build bridges of understanding, cooperation and mutual benefit between the American and Israeli people. My students (I am quite proud of them) asked excellent questions about the way that Israel is perceived by Americans and people around the world, about last summer's war with Hamas, and about the current issue of Iran's nuclear ambitions and Prime Minister Netanyahu's invitation to speak before Congress. I am quite grateful to Katharine Nasielski of the Embassy staff for answering their questions with forthright honesty and insight.
For me, making the visit to the Israeli Embassy was an important experience to give to my students. I want them to understand – and to be able to communicate to their peers – the realities of Israel. American Jews, and Americans in general, tend either to romanticize Israel as the spiritual center of the world, or to demonize it as a country of endless violence, war and hostility. Neither image is true.
Israel is a real place, with real problems, disputes, politics, competing interests, and people just trying to live their lives. I think today's visit helped the students understand that a bit better. They heard about how Israelis feel deeply emotionally connected to the land, even in times of war and violence. They heard about the conflicts between religious and secular Jews in Israel. They heard about how Israel struggles to build a single nation out of a society that has many religions, many ethnicities, and many cultural groups.
The real Israel is a much more interesting and much more fulfilling place than any of the romantic or vilified versions. Israel is a country with a lot of problems – as any Israeli will tell you – but it also is a country that is, on the whole, quite joyful. For all of their problems, Israelis are overwhelmingly committed to making the crazy experiment work. Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, Baha'i and none-of-the-above Israelis find ways to be part of a society that is a work in progress with a hopefulness about the future and a determination to survive and thrive despite all the threats they face.
That is what real joy is. It's not living a fantasy. Sometimes, it is living a difficult reality with courage and hope.
Of course, the best thing for my Confirmation students would be to go to the real Israel – not just an embassy of a few acres. To really know the place that has been the home of the Jewish people for more than three millennia – good people, bad people, real people – one really has to set foot in the Land of Israel itself.