(photo credit: Associated Press)
The teens sit cross-legged in a circle on the stones of a Jerusalem
Tour guide Adi Yaakobi, 25, a bare-headed sabra from
Bat Yam, places a thick book in the center.
“Does anyone not know what
this book is?” he asks. If anyone is unsure, he or she isn’t is admitting it.
“Please stand and move as close to or as far away from this book as you feel,”
Yaakobi instructs them.
The boys and girls hop to their feet and arrange
themselves accordingly. About half cluster around the book; the others
scattering themselves to show how distant they feel. New assignment from the
guide: “How much do you know about this book? Reposition yourself according to
how much you know.”
There’s a lot of movement. Some of the youngsters
feel more than they know; for others it’s the opposite. Still others don’t move.
There doesn’t seem to be a correlation between knowledge and emotional
The book is a Tanach, the Five Books of Moses, Prophets and
Writings – the canon of 24 books of the Hebrew Bible, compiled two millennia
ago. It’s an edition with a plastic cover, the kind these high-school students
are likely to get when they’re sworn into the IDF, as did my husband several
These are Israeli 11th graders, nearly all sabras. They seem
physically fit – they’ve spent the morning walking in David’s City – and they’re
smart. They ask intelligent questions about Robertson’s Arch when Yaakobi
explains how once it carried traffic from the lower market to the esplanade on
the Mount. Good officer material, I think.
They live in Tel Mond, a
prosperous, middle class town in the Sharon region.
Their school, named
for the late Yitzhak Rabin, describes itself on the city website as taking a
pluralistic approach to Jewish education, with respect and openness to different
The kids are sitting again and Yaakobi goes round
circle, asking each student to say a single word or two about the Tanach. Most
make a statement, instead. Their declarations range from “I believe in God,” to
“This is a lovely storybook, like the Greek myths.” Several students think
you’ll find good life instruction inside, while others dismiss it as superfluous
to establishing moral living for themselves.
The most vocal student stood
far away from the Tanach when he wanted to show his sense of connection. He
wants to make it clear that even he though he agrees that Bible was mostly
written here, that it’s about Israel and is the reason some want to live here,
it certainly doesn’t give the Jewish people the right to the Land of Israel.
Others students nod in agreement.
I can feel my own bristles rising, and
glance at the guide. His face is neutral.
He’s not going to deliver a
lecture about the rights of the Jewish people.
Instead, he calls on the
next student, who says that his family discusses the week’s Bible portion at
dinner at their home and he likes it.
I’m feeling worried. The students
are halfway through the six days of what’s called Israeli Journey, “Masa
Yisraeli M’Bereishit” in Hebrew.
You’ve heard about Birthright Israel,
that offers Diaspora youngsters a visit Israel, and about the March of the
Living to Poland. The Israeli Journey is one of the promising answers to the
dilution of Jewish and Zionist identity among Israeli youngsters. It’s fun, but
it’s also serious.
This program takes kids on a trek within the landscape
of their own country and asks them to investigate the landscape of their
The Journey is a combined hiking trip and workshop, with
activities punctuated by earnest and introspective discussions with peers. The
teens I joined had hiked through the Ramon crater and volunteered in Dimona
before arriving in Jerusalem.
The Education Ministry pays for 77 percent
of the cost of this program. The rest is funded by private donations. I was
recently invited, among a group of modern Orthodox neighbors, to attend an
evening of fund-raising for them, and decided to tag along with a group to see
what they do.
ALTHOUGH THE organizers say that today it’s common to find
high-school students who have never even visited Jerusalem, everyone in the
group I’ve joined has visited Jerusalem numerous times, on family and school
trips. Everyone but one had already been to Jerusalem this year.
makes this visit different, they all tell me, is how interesting Yaakobi’s
explanations are, and – unanimously – the depth of the circle talks.
talk about Judaism the way we never speak of it,” says one
Another says the thoughtful discussions have “opened up new
areas” he hadn’t thought about. Twelve thousand students take part in the
Journey every year.
Although the mission statement of Israeli Journey is
to “instill a new lens through which to capture an inspirational view of the
national birthplace, birthright and responsibility” Yaakobi doesn’t believe in
high-pitched sermons on flag and country. Instead, for discussion, he passes out
slips of paper with a quotation by Ben-Gurion in which he claims the Bible is
“our mandate” to this country.
“I wasn’t surprised,” he says, by “the
teens who seemed so unsure of their right to live here. I’d heard their comments
along the way in respect to the Land of Israel or other areas of Judaism. For
most teens, there is little contact with formal Judaism. Maybe they went to a
synagogue for their bar mitzva or with the family on Yom Kippur. They don’t have
a sense how they could possibly approach Judaism. I want to make Judaism
He’s not “religious,” he says. He grew up in a traditional
but not Orthodox home. He served five years in the IDF, as a combat soldier in
the infantry and later as an officer in the Intelligence Corps.
was still troubled by a lack of understanding of the uniqueness of the Jewish
“I didn’t feel it,” he said. “Even military service isn’t enough
to clarify the ties to Judaism.”
To answer some of his questions and
address his concerns over the lack of commitment of so many of his generation,
he has begun undergraduate studies in history and Jewish philosophy at the
Hebrew University. He sought employment with Israeli Journey as a group
Before taking out their first group, he and the other guides took
part in their own Israeli Journey.
“It was powerful, and helped me
crystallize my thinking. Without hitting you over the head, it provokes thinking
and allows you to explore in a noncoercive way what Judaism and Israel mean for
On Friday, the high-school kids visit Mount Herzl and talk about
Zionism. On Friday night, they take part in services at the Kotel, and then – to
respect Shabbat – walk more than hour from the Kotel to the Rabin Youth Hostel
in Givat Ram.
That week’s Torah portion, Emor, comes from the
less-than-user friendly Book of Leviticus, but includes familiar
In a final circle discussion, most of the students come to the
realization that they might have more connection to Judaism than they’d thought.
Nearly all of them think Shabbat dinner is important, whether they say kiddush
Others suppose that the volunteer work they do and commitment to
social justice might come from Jewish, not universal, values.
evaluation of the impact of the week’s Journey show an increased feeling of
connectedness to Judaism and more openness to learning about Judaism – at least
in the short-term.
Says guide Adi Yaakobi, “We’re not here to provide all
the answers, but to raise questions. After all, isn’t that the Jewish way?” ■
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern
Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the
Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.