They didn’t just show us the nice parts of Israel,” said Teaneck resident Avri Szafranski, speaking about “A Place Called Home,” a program sponsored by the Yeshiva University Center for the Jewish Future involving 40 select undergraduates, seven of them from New Jersey.
The week-long service learning winter-break tour was to designed to explore the complex feelings of many diaspora Jews.
Participants met with Israelis with diverse backgrounds, religious beliefs, and political perspectives to learn about the issues surrounding establishing a life in Israel. Among them were longtime citizens, new olim (immigrants), former residents of Gush Katif, foreign workers, settlers, and farmers.
“We believe it is essential that these future leaders experience the realities of Israeli life and politics through the lens of individuals and communities who are trying to build – and rebuild – their homes in Israel,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, CJF dean. “In this way, they will develop a deeper appreciation for what it means to be a citizen of the Jewish state and gain a better understanding of how they – and other diaspora Jews – should relate to Israel.”
The seminar, supported by the Jim Joseph Foundation, focused on issues such as how ideologies shape and divide people; balancing Jewish values with humanism and democracy; settling and developing an authentic connection with the land; and the costs and benefits of establishing a life in Israel versus the diaspora.
For Szafranski, a 21-year-old pre-med psychology major, the trip did not resolve his conflict over whether or not to plan a move to Israel.
“It helped paint a realistic picture of the opportunities, the costs, and struggles,” he said. “You think of Israel as a place where everyone is happy, but they took us to [the Tel Aviv neighborhood of] Neve Sha’anan, a ‘ghetto’ for asylum-seekers and refugees who are barely making a living. The question is, is the Jewish state just a place for Jews?”
Regarding this question and others, Stern College for Women junior Shira Preil of Bergenfield was glad to have her community rabbi, Yaakov Neuburger, on the mission. Neuburger, a rosh yeshiva at YU and leader of Cong. Beth Abraham, provided a nightly lesson from traditional Jewish sources relating to each day’s activities.
“It was so helpful to have him there during our debriefing sessions,” said Preil.
Describing herself as “a very rational and logical person,” she said that she hopes to make aliyah and was seeking clarity on the realities of Israeli society. “This program was geared to enlightening people about these issues, and I appreciated the intellectual honesty. Despite the struggles, there is a value to living in Israel, and this program clearly wanted to address that.”
One highlight for both these students was getting acquainted with families still living in temporary caravans in Nitzan since their removal from the Gush Katif area of Gaza by the Israeli government in 2005. They shared their frustrations over how little support they have received from the government to help rebuild their lives.
“I really enjoyed going to Nitzan and volunteering with the teens there,” said Szafranski, who pitched in to paint a youth center. “Most don’t even remember the whole evacuation, and some don’t want to talk about it. I feel we made their day by showing that people -even young adults from America – still care about them. When we were leaving, they all climbed on the bus with us and asked for our Facebook and e-mail [addresses]. It was beautiful.”
Preil noted that the adults, though “angry and disenchanted, still valued the ideal of Eretz Yisrael as a Jewish homeland. You saw their struggle between reality and value.”
The students heard from a group of “old” and “new” immigrants assembled by Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization that facilitates aliyah from North America. “They all said there are still roles you can play in the diaspora as a Jew, but they got us to think about where we feel the most loyal and where we can do the most good,” said Szafranski.
Preil took away a message that visiting as frequently as possible is vital to maintaining an Israel connection.
“After seminary, I had a strong aliyah drive, and now I’ve become very stable in my life in America, making plans for grad school,” she said. “Being pushed out of that routine shifted my focus back on aliyah again.”
Brander said that CJF programs are intended to inspire students to become agents of change in their communities and the world at large. “We hope that this experience encourages them to consider how they might approach issues like tolerance between religious and secular Jews,” he said, and the disparity between Jewish law and democratic values in their own Jewish communities.”