Navigating our flat Earth

How to get young people to be distinctively Jewish and globally human.

young jews 63 (photo credit: )
young jews 63
(photo credit: )
As Taglit-Birthright Israel participants met in Tel Aviv's Independence Hall this month, a group of soldiers waited for the students outside. The soldiers had spent five days with the students as part of the Taglit program. They wanted to say goodbye before their new friends departed for their respective colleges around the world. The bonds that these young people forged were bigger than their individual relationships. One soldier, Merav Tenenbaum of Rishon Letzion, recalled visiting the Mt. Herzl military cemetery, where one of her fellow soldiers told the Taglit group the story of a fallen friend at his graveside. "The sacrifice the Israeli army makes became clear to me that day," she told me. "I look at my national service in a new way. Before I just saw it as something I had to do, something that was natural for an Israeli. But now I see myself as a representative and a defender of the Jewish people. [This time spent with Taglit] is the best thing I ever did in the army, and the perfect way to end my service. I will never forget it." Jarret Shapiro, a third-year student at Philadelphia's Drexel University, said that traveling with the soldiers was one of the highlights of the trip. "I saw a little piece of myself in them, and they saw themselves in us," he said. These young people, among the 3,500 Hillel college students in Israel this winter, did not see Israel as a postcard image through the window of an air-conditioned bus. The Israelis didn't see Diaspora Jews as mere tourists or donors. At one and the same time they saw the personal stories of their peers and the profound implications of their collective relationship to the history of the Jewish people. That's not a bad return on an educational investment. THIS IS the age of Facebook, when young people share intimate details of their personal lives and create individual one-to-one links on on-line social networking sites. They filter mass-media images through the experience and recommendations of their peers. By providing them with direct connections to one another we are cutting through their cynicism and putting a human face on the global Jewish people. And we are not only influencing these students, we are affecting their social networks as well. The Internet is one factor that has contributed to "the flattening of the Earth," in the words of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. On this flattened Earth, borders recede and people are interconnected through commerce and communication. The Jewish people - no strangers to international connections - exemplifies this global trend. The young people on the Taglit trip, or on a Hillel student leadership program, may include a Russian-speaking student from Los Angeles, the Argentinian son of an Israeli, or a Canadian of Tunisian-Jewish ancestry. In North America the picture is even more complex: Many Jewish students identify themselves with more than one ethnic identity. A student may be the child of a Russian-Jewish father and a Southern Baptist mother, for example. THE CHALLENGE that we face in working with young people on this flattened Earth is helping them to balance being distinctively Jewish and universally human. During a discussion at Hillel's Charles Schusterman International Student Leaders Assembly, meeting at Kibbutz Ein Gev, some students reveled in being a "Chosen People" while others took issue with aspects of Jewish particularism. Israel provides a unique mountaintop from which to observe the flat Earth. Israel is both a crossroads of the global economy and a melting pot of Jewish identities. It is the only nation in which Jewish ethics are applied to law, government, defense, foreign policy and social welfare. It provides a unique laboratory in which to grow Jewish identity and Jewish leaders. The Hillel students in Israel as part of Leaders Assembly, or those participating in our alternative break - students from Israel, North America, Latin America and the former Soviet Union, witness how Israeli businesses are providing the world with technological innovation and how refugees from Darfur are treated. By bringing young people to Israel on Taglit, or for leadership training, we are not providing them with answers to the difficult questions of Jewish identity on a flattened Earth. In fact, we may be challenging their assumptions and raising even more profound issues for them. However, we are providing them with context, content and connections. By meeting their counterparts from around the world they can appreciate their place in the global Jewish community; they are given Jewish ideas from a variety of sources with which to formulate their own answers; and they are given contacts around the globe - their all-important Facebook friends - with whom to share the challenges of Jewish life today and tomorrow. We are helping them to navigate their journey on our flattened earth and have a meaningful, prideful Jewish homecoming, wherever that home may be. The writer is president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.