The Israeli teens got to experience the ordinary tourist sites – Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, a Broadway show, etc. They got to experience a taste of American life – Summit High School, the Livingston Mall, Target, etc. They also got to experience American Judaism – our synagogue, kosher restaurants, community observances of Yom Ha-Zikaron (Memorial Day for Fallen Israeli Soldiers) and Yom Ha-Atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day), etc.
Perhaps, the most important thing that happened on their trip, however, was the creation of relationships in their hosts’ homes. Ten families from our congregation opened up their homes and welcomed 2 or 3 members of the Israeli delegation. It’s the second year in a row that we have had the opportunity to welcome a group from the MetroWest High School in Ra’anana (which is between Tel Aviv and Netanya – just inland from the coast).
This morning, before they started their last day of touring, the teachers conducted a wrap-up session with the students. I was fortunate to be in the room for part of it. The teachers asked the kids what impressed them the most about their trip and what they would be taking home with them (BESIDES gifts and souvenirs). The answers were incredibly insightful and moving.
Two major themes emerged from their answers to the questions. First of all, they all talked about the warm welcome they received individually from their hosts and collectively from the community. Although they were far from home, they were made to feel at home. That made it easier for them to focus on the experience.
The second – and perhaps more surprising theme – was that they learned about Judaism here in New Jersey. Most of them came here thinking that there were two options in Judaism – Haredi (strict orthodox) Judaism or Hiloni (secular) Judaism – with nothing in between. Here in the US, they discovered the vast middle ground of progressive Judaism and they liked what they saw. They were surprised to learn that Judaism can be egalitarian, inclusive and modern.
It’s funny – we send our kids to Israel to learn about Judaism and come back more enthusiastic about their Jewish identities. We don’t think about the fact that we can do the same for Israeli teens who, despite speaking Hebrew and living in the one and only Jewish state, have little exposure to modern expressions of Judaism.
It’s one more reminder of why we need each other – diaspora Jews need Israel and Israeli Jews need us right back. As I said to the group before they left “We are One People – Am Echad.” Happy Yom Ha-Atzma’ut!