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A Federation Trip Is a Learning Experience - 4/26/2013


My wife and I recently returned from a Federation trip to Israel. It was our second visit to the Holy Land. The first was over forty years ago. Has it changed? You bet. Where once we saw small villages and kibutzes, narrow, curving roads, donkeys and camels and a few cars, we now encountered skyscrapers and superhighways that were as congested as those at home. During this trip we saw no donkeys laden with merchandise, led by individuals in long robes, and the only two camels we came upon were ones you could ride for a fee while you had your picture taken.

As a result, I initially felt cheated. I missed the quaintness of the past and lacked the feeling that I had traveled back in time to visit a part of the world that was different from my own.  I should note that, although extremely exciting, we did not miss the aerial attack we witnessed the first time we visited the Golan Heights. We were told by our guide that it was just an air force maneuver, but after a hurried retreat to our hotel, we learned the truth; a war was about to break out.

Let me add that I slowly began to appreciate what this trip truly had to offer. Consequently, I was better able to appreciate the lessons that were there to be learned.

The first was that a Federation trip isn’t a sightseeing trip. You will see sights, but you can no more see Israel in seven days than you can the United States. Instead, a Federation trip is a forshpiez,  a small taste intended to stimulate your interest while exposing you to your historical and cultural roots. And it does that quite well. Even more, it helps you discover what the Federation does more clearly than words alone describe. You get to witness, first hand, the impact the Federation’s activities have on the people of Israel, financially, politically and educationally. You also learn that it provides support and involvement of a highly personal nature to needy Israelis of all religions.

Should you go on a Federation trip? Should you support its efforts or become involved in its activities? The answer to each of these questions is a definite yes. Why? Because if you are a jew, a part of you exists only as long as Israel exists. Your heritage and history is there. Your forefathers’ struggle to survive; the suffering they experienced and the price they paid to claim this country all contributed to you being able to stand up and proudly announce, “I am a jew and I am here today as a consequence of their  past efforts.” A past all jews need to remember.  That’s the second lesson.

There is a third lesson I learned. It’s the answer to the question, “Why should I go to Israel? I’m not religious, I don’t attend services, except on special occasions; the high holidays, maybe for a bar or bat mitzvah, and occasionally a wedding, or a birth. I don’t have a fur hat, wear a yarmulke, wrap myself in a talith, or keep kosher. I’m more of a bagel and lox, smoked fish, blintz, chopped liver, brisket, knish and kugel jew.”

I have an answer for that question. “It’s Okay. You aren’t alone. Jews aren’t all one flavor. G-d knows that. But anti-semites don’t. They aren’t concerned with how observant a jew you are; how you appear on the outside; your age, or whether you’re circumcised. No group demonstrated that better than the nazis, who believed that as long as one drop of jewish blood flowed in you, you were a threat, because you’re jewish. And jews, like it or not, are different. Contrary to common opinion, they’re strong and resilient because they’re survivors. A long history of prejudice and persecution, best exemplified by the German concentration camps served to make us stronger. It is also the reason that all of us have to proudly own our judaism and defend its existence. To do so doesn’t require that we wrap ourselves in a talith, hang a menorah in our window, or walk around with a yarmulke on our  heads. But we do have to be involved.”

There is a fourth lesson that can be learned from going to Israel. You need only land on Israeli soil and see the flags waving at the airport to realize that it’s alright to be jewish. Even more, it’s something to be proud of. It enables you to feel a sense of belonging, a feeling of security, and a pride in your faith. You see, in Israel you don’t have to be embarrassed or frightened because you’re jewish. Nor do you have to emigrate or live there. You only have to know that it exists, and that, because it exists, you do as well.

As you interact with Israeli citizens, you realize something else; that “what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.” Israelis are a people who, in some places, live less than a mile away from an enemy who has vowed to annihilate them. They are surrounded on three sides by people whose primary mission in life it is to destroy them. Yet, they wake up every day with enthusiasm and excitement regarding their future. Instead of worrying about tomorrow, they live for today. They fight hard, work hard and play hard. They live life, they don’t just tolerate it. They have made major advances in science, medicine, military technology and business that are recognized worldwide. Individually, they have opinions about everything, which they’re readily willing to express - sometimes to the extreme. But it underlines the fact that they care. They can be stubborn, opinionated, and pushy. But even these qualities have contributed to their survival.

There is as fifth lesson to be learned by going on a Federation trip. One that results from the opportunity to meet and speak with Israeli youths. You almost immediately realize that there is a vitality in them which we only rarely see in our young people. They’re committed to education, concerned about values, actively support their country and are dedicated to its continued existence. Because of that, they direct their energies toward refining and reforming their political system. Overall, they display an emotional exuberance that is the exception in the United States today. It makes you realize what active participation, concern and emotional involvement can bring about, not only in Israel, but in our country, as well. Our youths in general, but particularly our jewish youth, need to capture some of these characteristics and traits, because it will aid them in their individual struggles to survive.

For me, personally, this fifth lesson underscored my feelings that most individuals in our country

have become too complacent. We deny what is painful or anxiety producing. We avoid reality. We fail to appreciate the fact that we’re fortunate to have what we have, to live in the United States of America and to be a jew.

These are the lessons I learned on the Federation trip. One thing for certain is that they’re lessons we need to teach our children, lest they lose their identity and become another one of the complacent followers who expect and accept the inevitable, who fail to see that they can make a difference in the world and in their country, once they learn to make a difference in their own lives.

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