I’m sitting in the lobby of a kibbutz hotel in the north of Israel where there is a group of college students from the Pacific Northwest on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip. Taglit-Birthright is the organization that gets young Jewish people to travel to Israel for the first time in group trips. These students have just arrived here after four days in Jerusalem and they all look exhausted, but also giddy with excitement.
That is what the statistics say, and that is why the American Jewish community puts so much of its resources into sending young people on trips to Israel. Demographic studies show that once young Jews come to Israel, they are permanently more likely to participate in other activities that promote Jewish identity—celebrating Jewish holidays, joining Jewish communities, raising Jewish children, and supporting the state of Israel. There is a romance in the land of Israel and the story of the Jewish people’s return here that holds people in its grip. There is a passion and an energy among Israelis that people experience here and it is infectious.
I experienced it today myself. At Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, I heard a presentation from an Israeli woman who talked about why Israel is so important to her personally. She told us, “Don’t think that living here is easy. Don’t think that we get used to it, either. I’ve sent three of my children into the army, and the third was just as hard to send as the first. But we do it. We don’t do it because we think Israel is perfect—believe me, it’s not. We can apologize for our mistakes, but we can never apologize for living. We refuse to apologize for being here in a place that we love, the only place that is a home for us.”
Even though I am no stranger to life in Israel—I spent a year of my life here as a rabbinic student—that speech got to me. It made me tear up inside to hear such passionate love and passionate insistence. I am moved by the choice made by many Jews that the only authentic way for them to be Jews is to live in Israel.
I am warning you, if you come here, it will move you, too.
That joyful message seems just a little bit out of place today, a day of ancient Jewish mourning. Today is Asara B'Tevet, a fast day in commemoration of the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem in 587 b.c.e. It may not seem like the right time to rejoice over the love of Israel on a day when the Jewish people remember their exile from this land.
While I'm aware of the day's significance, this is one Jewish tradition I have never followed myself. As a Reform Jew, it is difficult for me to connect spiritually with this day. Frankly, most Conservative and Orthodox Jews also ignore or circumvent the fast. In addition to the siege of Jerusalem, the day is also supposed to be one of mourning the beginning of the composition of the Septuagint, the ancient Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek.
Why should that be a cause for sorrow? Because, in translating the Bible, one tradition says,some of the meanings found in the exact language of the Bible were muted or lost for those Jews who could only read the translation.
That strikes me as exactly the wrong message for the Jewish people today, and the joyful reestablishment of the Jewish sovereignty in our land is the exact example of that fallacy. The Jewish students I saw today have been drawn back to Judaism because organizations like Taglit-Birthright have made it accessible to them. Without making any assumptions about their attachments to Judaism or their Jewish knowledge, we have allowed these young people to discover Israel and let its magic and power draw them in. It is only once they take that step, that these young people surprise themselves by saying, "I want to learn Hebrew."
Mourn the translation of our sacred texts into a language that Jews actually understand? We should celebrate it. We should rejoice that the door is being held open for young Jewish people to step inside of Israel and be entranced by its magic.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Yom Ha'Atzma'ut: Happy Birthday, Israel