Sometimes a simple request can instantaneously drain all of the air from a room.
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"Tell me about what makes you Israeli, truly Israeli," said the 24-year-old American, "except you are not allowed to use the word 'army.'"
Boom. With that, this mifgash, this meeting of Israeli shlichim (teacher emissaries) bound for a Jewish summer camp in America this summer and their American counterparts spending a year in Israel to study, suddenly got very real.
"Who is this guy?" they asked. "What do you mean? I can't simply separate the army from who I am, it is part of me, part of my country, my community, my friends; I serve my country, I've made a difference, I can't simply leave the army out - it defines who I am!"
"You see," they said, "you Americans just don't understand, we live in a world with terror, you live in a bubble of freedom and comfort; the army and everyone who serves in it are an inseparable part of what it means to be Israeli."
The conversation continued to unfold over hours, and slowly the layers peeled away to reveal fascinating truths on both sides of the coin that is Jewish identity in the 21st century: Israel and America.
The strapping Israeli who had served his country in a combat unit was able to articulate that indeed, although it is sometimes easy to forget, he was an Israeli long before he was ever a soldier. "Being Israeli," he explained, "is about self-confidence, it is about a love of food, of culture, of sports, especially Maccabi Tel Aviv, and it is about feeling pride, intense pride about being a small country in the overwhelming sea of the world, and yet somehow being able to make an impact on the world stage."
The American college graduate explained what it is like being a student on a college campus, beset on all sides by protests calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. "In those moments," he shared, "I am called upon to be Israeli, to represent a country that I love deeply and yet a country that I am not a part of."
"I am an accidental ambassador; and so I read and I learn as much as I can so that I can play the part to the best of my ability."
And so it was that last week, in that sunny room on a kibbutz on the Mediterranean, over the course of 24 hours that summer camp truly began.
You see, every year the Jewish Agency sends over 1,000 shlichim to Jewish summer camps in North America. They are counselors, swimming instructors, tennis coaches, Hebrew teachers and song leaders. They bring their passions, their talents and their contagious energies to our camps and they enrich the experience of our campers and our staff in countless ways. And each spring, camp directors from North America travel halfway across the world to meet, get to know and train the new and returning Israeli staff members who will, in two months' time, be a part of our camp communities.
It was at these meetings last week, and it was in that room, in that moment when an American student challenged a group of his Israeli contemporaries to think beyond themselves and into the mind of the American Jew, when I had the following thought:
Israelis and Americans are like cousins. We share the same DNA, the same grandparents and the same core values passed down to us by our ancestors, but we were raised in dramatically different homes. Different homes with different parents. We have different foundational memories, different experiences that defined us in our youths and continue to define us in our adulthood. We love, we cherish and we respect one another, but we will never be siblings; instead, we will always be cousins. And in order for these cousins to remain inexorably connected to one another, we will need to dedicate ourselves to constructing consistent opportunities for serious dialogue; and not solely in a social context, but rather by talking truthfully about the things that profoundly shape our worldviews.
My trip was only six days long, but what it lacked in length it made up for in depth. This too is our challenge: to challenge the “Birthrightization” of the American-Israeli experience. That is, the expectation that brief, “one-off” trips to Israel will result in a deeper connection to one’s Jewish identity in a truly global sense.
As our seminar came to a close, I asked my new friends to share one experience that changed them. One emissary explained that for her, the experience was not easy. Instead it challenged her to "open up boxes of herself that normally remained closed." Questions like what makes me an Israeli? What makes one truly Jewish? Who am I, and where do I belong? These questions don't have-to be (and perhaps should not be) part of our daily existence. But they are a necessary part of a meaningful existence.
And if these two sides of the same coin of modern Jewish existence are to ever truly face each other, we will need to have the confidence to open up those boxes and put every question firmly on the table of our dialogue.