Nowadays it seems commonplace that Jewish students spend time in Israel. Whether they travel for a semester, a summer or a family trip, most affiliated Jewish students seem to have visited Israel by the time they graduate college.
In 1983, when I was 16 years old, I participated on Akiba Hebrew Academy’s first semester abroad program. At that time it was rare for a school to send their students overseas and it had taken several years before Akiba, together with Ramah Programs in Israel, had the critical mass required to send us.
To me, even at that time, going to Israel seemed a natural extension of my education and an incredible opportunity for exploration, growth and self-development. I had grown up camping and, having gone cross-country with my family at the age of eleven, I thought that any type of travel would be a wonderful way to learn on multiple levels.
Having learned about Israel for many years, having marched in solidarity rallies and walkathons and having celebrated Israeli Independence Day, Israel seemed an intrinsic part of my being Jewish. Visiting Israel seemed as normal and as expected as visiting a synagogue on Shabbat. However, the Friday night before I left for Israel for my first semester of eleventh grade, I was talking with my parents’ friends at Temple Beth Shalom’s Friday night oneg Shabbat and I was shocked that most of them had never visited Israel. For that matter, most had never left the USA.
As I grew older, I realized how few Americans travel outside of the United States in general and specifically how few American Jews travel to Israel. Among those who make a trip to Israel, the minority seem to make regular repeat visits even among those who constitute the American Jewish leadership.
I had expected to see many of my USY and Ramah friends at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem during our junior year of college, but only a few were there. Few of my friends, even those in leadership positions in the Jewish community participated on any type of long-term program in Israel or have come to Israel as adults.
However, this appears to be changing. Two years ago, I served as a shaliach, speaking on numerous college campuses about Israel. Speaking at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, I asked how many people had been to Israel. About half the hands went up. When I asked how many people who had never been to Israel had definite plans to visit Israel, the other half of the room raised their hands. Of more than fifty students attending Friday night services at the UVA Hillel that Shabbat, only one student had not been to Israel and did not know when she would be coming. This is largely due to the Birthright program which funds free trips to Jewish young adults who have not previously participated on an Israel program.
It has been over twenty years since I graduated high school. Many of the friends I grew up with are now lay leaders in the American Jewish community. Many came to Israel on tours over twenty years ago and have not been back since. For me, Israel is such an intrinsic part of Judaism, I can not imagine how a leader in the Jewish community can function responsibly without regular trips to explore their relationship with Israel, Jewish history and the Israeli people.
My best friend from high school, Eliot, is the president of his synagogue in Connecticut. Like I, he attended Akiba, went to Camp Ramah and served on the regional executive board of USY. Yet, despite his involvement and commitment to Judaism, Israel has not played an active part in Eliot’s Jewish identity. He has not been to Israel since his Bar Mitzvah. Next month, however, after more than 25 years since his last visit, Eliot will be coming to Israel with his family.
Eliot’s son, Eric, who attends Camp Ramah and a Jewish day school, will most likely come to Israel again before he finishes high school and possibly a third time before he graduates high school. As our children reap the benefits afforded to them that were not available to us, I see many parents who visit their children on Israel programs sometimes taking advantage of special parent trips arranged for such purposes and sometimes making their own arrangements.
With whatever frequency and in whatever capacity you come to Israel, the rewards are more than you remember. As I first realized in high school, not only is a trip to Israel an incredible opportunity for exploration, growth and self-development, it is a time to reconnect to yourself, your family, your people, your history and your land.
I am optimistic that the next generation of American Jews will have a close personal bond with our homeland and will make regular trips to visit us in Israel and to enrich themselves. I look forward to seeing more of you visiting us in Israel in the months ahead.
I am so excited for Eliot’s trip. Israel is a great place for discoveries. I’ll keep you posted.