My son Yoni just graduated from the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Charles E. Smith High School for Boys. Ok, this being Israel, the “graduation” ceremony occurred with four matriculation tests still looming.
Beyond feeling parental pride, I experienced his graduation as a celebration of Jewish values and the Zionist vision that affirmed our decision to live in Jerusalem.
Compared to American commencements, the speeches emphasized values more than achievements, less concerned with what material the students learned than what kinds of people they had become – and would be.
The teachers showed that they do not judge a Hartman graduate by grades received, money earned, possessions acquired, or fame amassed, but by good deeds done, relationships established, tough questions tackled, lives well lived. The student speaker confirmed that Hartman challenged them to become better people – b’nai adam – teaching “tolerance, thinking about others and contributing to society.”
My son found the school’s many social action projects most compelling: distributing food to the needy, visiting the elderly, working with special needs kids, dining, dialoguing, learning Talmud and watching movies with ex-cons in a halfway house.
The teachers articulated and modeled those ideas and ideals. Yoni’s “mechanech,” Omri Shasha, technically his home-room teacher but really an educator, rebbe, coach and counselor, recalled a lovely moment. On one overnight group-building exercise, Omri randomly assigned to each classmate another classmate to praise. After the first round of blessings, one student added something about somebody he hadn’t been assigned. Then another did and another did, and the compliments went round and round for hours.
This sense of caring bonded Yoni with his teachers as well as his peers. Yoni’s previous mechanech, Rubik Sarid, recalled transitioning from being formally in charge to being “a moreh bamisdaron,” a teacher in the hallway – as his dual mission of caring for their minds and souls continued, more informally. The teachers and principal Shaul David repeatedly proclaimed that Hartman remains the students’ “home” into the future.
The head of school – and a close friend – Rabbi Donniel Hartman urged the students to live the Hartman philosophy articulated by his late father Rabbi David Hartman.
Donniel urged the students to forge their own paths and think boldly. Own your religious and personal decisions, he said, facing the difficult dilemmas of reconciling Judaism and modernity directly, emphasizing the essence of the issue, not appearances. He ended, movingly, by saying, “We now are turning to you to protect our state and yourselves.”
It is heartbreaking that today’s world requires such a charge, that the looming dangers of having to defend their country shadowed the ceremony. Nevertheless, I – and the other parents – cherished all the efforts to prepare these fine young men for life’s challenges, rooting them in Jewish tradition, guided by enduring values, special role models and amazing experiences.
Recently, I was asked to explain to young Israelis American Jews’ understanding of Zionism. The question has two meanings: what does Zionism look like from outside Israel, and what kind of nutter rejects America’s safety and prosperity for the Middle East’s uncertainty and vulnerability? This Hartman High graduation ceremony answers both questions.
For most, Diaspora Zionism involves self-defense, combating anti-Semitism and advocating for Israel passionately.
I fear that such defensiveness cannot sustain a modern movement in Israel or abroad. My “Identity Zionism” addresses the individual, offering Jewish peoplehood and the opportunities of Jewish sovereignty in our homeland as vehicles for finding meaning. The artificial world of a Zionist youth movement or summer camp is a constructively subversive counterculture. This alternate universe emphasizes the us over the I, the authentic over the superficial, the Jewish over the generic, the eternal over the ephemeral. It critiques the high-pressured, over-achieving America, the excessively technological, increasingly individuated West, the thinning out of identity in America’s me, me, me, my, my, my, more, more, more, now, now, now Republic of Nothing. Zionism seeks the thickness of Jewish identity, the anchoring of history, the cloistering of community, a Republic of Something, to find meaning in the world, including helping others universally through our transcendent tribalism.
Once applied in Israel itself, these ideals are reinforced by the texture of Jewish history, the richness of Jewish values, the depth of Israel’s story, the beauty of the land of Israel and the joy of feeling at home, feeling normal, in 24-hour Jewish time and Jewish space. Here, the calendar revolves around Shabbat and the holidays, the local landmarks evoke our noble Jewish past, further enhancing this inspiring, absorbing, fulfilling narrative.
I do not claim that only through Zionism can one achieve many of these feelings or connections. I do not overlook the dangers of going provincial or Israel’s current shortcomings. But I find the richness of the vision compelling and want to play it out on a national scale, not in a ghettoized neighborhood or artificial camp experience.
The Hartman ceremony offered an ideological symphony hitting many of those notes, of the intimacy of community, the universal good achieved by burrowing deep, the resonance of our tradition, the idealism of Zionism, the normalcy and exceptionalism of modern Judaism, and the rooting, calming, power of home.
Like Israel itself, the Hartman education was not perfect – more science and better laboratories, for example, are desperately needed. But just as a graduation ceremony is aspirational, projecting, like a good date, the community’s idealized self, Zionism, the movement first to establish and now to perfect a Jewish state, is also aspirational.
In an imperfect world, 100 percent success is unattainable, educationally, ideologically, politically. But I remain incredibly motivated to cooperate with these amazing people trying to fulfill this heroic mission, perfecting the small bubble in southern Jerusalem, reflecting a broader, more ambitious, Zionist process to perfect Judaism, Israel and the world.The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, to be published by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press in October 2015. A professor of history at McGill University, he will be a Visiting Scholar at the Brookings Institution in the fall. His previous book was the award-winning Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy