The Human Spirit: Local journey

Tour guide Adi Yaakobi, 25, a bare-headed sabra from Bat Yam, places a thick book in the center.

311_Guttenberg Bible (photo credit: Associated Press)
311_Guttenberg Bible
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The teens sit cross-legged in a circle on the stones of a Jerusalem archeological park.
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 proximity.
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 decades ago.
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 interpretations.
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 identity.
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.
What makes this visit different, they all tell me, is how interesting Yaakobi’s explanations are, and – unanimously – the depth of the circle talks.
“You talk about Judaism the way we never speak of it,” says one student.
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 approachable.”
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.
But he was still troubled by a lack of understanding of the uniqueness of the Jewish people.
“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 leader.
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 you.”
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 holidays.
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 or not.
Others suppose that the volunteer work they do and commitment to social justice might come from Jewish, not universal, values.
Independent 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.