"Long-term programs address an aspect of Jewish identity that American Jewry is less capable of strengthening outside of Israel: the notion of peoplehood."
By Rabbi Lee Buckman
Birthright Israel is about to reach its 100,000th participant on their 10-day free Israel trips designed for 18-25 year olds. This is a spectacular accomplishment for Israel and the Jewish people.
Anyone who has been to Israel knows how transformational the experience can be. The 730 participants on the Federation Mission can attest to that. Imagine the impact on 100,000 college students who had never been on a peer-based Israel trip.
Now the State of Israel is going one step further. They have created an annual fund of $100 million, administered by a company called Masa, to double the number of students spending a semester or a year in Israel to 20,000 per year by 2008.
Masa recognizes that participation in a long-term program in Israel is one of the most effective ways to cultivate young adults' sense of shared destiny with the State of Israel and with world Jewry. Whether volunteering at Magen David Adom as an EMT, or studying at Hebrew University or at a yeshiva as a student, these experiences give young American Jews an authentic opportunity to see themselves as part of a living people with a rich history, a dynamic language, and a vibrant nation.
Sociologists note that these long-term programs address an aspect of Jewish identity that American Jewry is less capable of strengthening outside of Israel: the notion of peoplehood. While the number of students in Jewish day schools is increasing, and the number of adults that study Talmud is at an unprecedented high (even when compared to European yeshivot of a century or two ago), these successes primarily shape one's religious identity. But Jewish identity has at least two components: a sense of family and shared ideals.
Avraham Yitschak Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, called these two aspects of identity "brit avot," a covenant of family, and "brit Sinai," a covenant of religious commitments. Since the time of Abraham, we have been part of a definable family and people; at Sinai we became a nation defined by a religious mission.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik captured the same idea but described the two covenants as "brit goral," a covenant of fate, and "brit yeud," a covenant of destiny. The covenant of fate describes the fact that we share a common history and feel a common responsibility to intervene when a fellow Jew is in need. In contrast, the covenant of destiny reflects the mission that we were charged with and the commitments we made at Sinai.
To paraphrase Hanan Alexander, a professor of the philosophy of education at Haifa University, “Jewish identity needs to be both political and religious. The great mistake of American Jewry was to opt for the latter without the former. The great mistake of secular Israel has been to try to keep the former without the latter. Since Israel is the symbolic and material expression of Jewish political identity today, Israel is the key to enriching the 'brit avot' for American Jews."
In the mid-1980's Orthodox families began to send their children for year of yeshiva study following high school. Twenty years later, the gap year in Israel is nearly a rite of passage in the Orthodox community.
Now it is time to set a new communal norm in which college-bound students from all the Jewish denominations spend a year studying or volunteering in Israel. Thanks to Masa, funding is in place.
Thanks to American universities, there is a new understanding of the benefits of study abroad. Many have endorsed and, in some cases, even mandated such programs because they recognize that an extended period of time in a foreign country is not a deviation from a profitable career; it is a life-enhancing world experience that deepens the path to mature adulthood. And for Jewish students, semester or year-long study or volunteering in Israel can cultivate and strengthen a neglected part of our Jewish identity: our sense of being part of a sacred family.
Israel has extended a new invitation. It is now our turn to act--for the sake of our people and for the sake of our children.
Rabbi Buckman is Head of School at The Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit in West Bloomfield, Michigan.