The Stolen Journey Home

My first trip to Israel was scheduled for January 2001. Part of our Jewish Day School curriculum involved Israel education that revolved around this milestone trip; from preparing us to what we would see, to how we would process the experience. In addition to Talmud and Jewish history courses, our Hebrew classes included conversational Hebrew, mostly because it is an integral part Jewish life, but also because we were being prepared for our eventual senior trip to Israel. When my oldest sister returned from hers, I wanted to know all the details. Her answer? “Just hold on, I don’t want to ruin the experience for you”.

Then, the second Intifada happened. We were young, and somewhat (and in hindsight unfairly) unaware of what this meant not only to us as Jews, but to our long-awaited rite of passage. 

Jewish life in Chile happens mostly in a vacuum: its self-contained nature is limited to the life behind the reinforced gates of the school, youth movement on Saturday afternoons, and the 10 days of sleep away camp every summer. While we were required to wear a uniform that proudly displayed Jewish imagery, we were expected to cover it outside of the school. All activities outside the four walls of whichever space our activities took place included heavy security. In short, living Jewishly required an extra level of effort; one does not parade their Jewishness, no matter how proud you are, on the streets. Not for lack of wanting, but for safety reasons.

For us, going to Israel was not only the culmination of our Jewish studies, but the moment in which our parents’ investment and our academic efforts in our Jewish life would result in this transformative experience of finally entering into the promised land, where all of our learning would become a lifestyle, even if only for three weeks. We would experience Israeli life, eat the foods we had learned about, speak the language we had spent so many hours learning, and immersing ourselves in a world in which we no longer had to hide the Menorah on our shirt or the Magen David around our neck.

There are very few emotions I remember from my teenage yeas (or at least emotions that I can separate from the general teenage angst). The day we got called into a class meeting with our parents and told that our trip would be cancelled was heart wrenching. In the sea of teenage frustration, the last thing on our minds was the bigger picture: Israel was under attack and our safety was compromised. The next three or so years of trips were also cancelled, which made the news somewhat more digestible (albeit still sad for those classes also). Eventually, the trip was reinstated, and I watched with envy how all these kids got to experience what the world robbed me of.

The envy turned to resentment, and even though the opportunity to go on Birthright Israel presented itself multiple times, I no longer felt that desperate need to go to Israel. The hopefulness was different, and although the eagerness to experience the magic of Israel persisted, part of it was darkened by deep safety concerns. I did eventually go to Israel 18 years later (no, the numerical coincidence is not lost on me), and while it wasn’t the trip I had prepared my whole life for, it did remind me of that eagerness for the experience and deep connection I had hoped for. Also, as luck would have it, I had the opportunity to help a Rabbi friend translate a Bat Mitzvah service at the Kotel, which I am sure is not what was on the itinerary all those years back. While this trip allowed me to feel that spirituality that we anticipate taking over us as we walk out of Ben Gurion airport, the soul of the teenager was long gone, and the rite had a completely different meaning.

As I sit and watch our homeland and our siblings face overwhelming fear and uncertainty, I can’t help but feel a heightened sense of responsibility as an educator. I think of all those students who might see their trips to Israel cancelled or (hopefully) reschedule, I worry about what kind of repercussions this will have in their own connection to Israel moving forward. Will they feel that disappointment so deeply that they will give up on any future attempts? Will the fear deter them from wanting to live their most authentic Jewish life? Will they internalize the conflict so much that they will equate Israel with uncertainty and fear? Will vicarious trauma due to both media exposure and individual experiences with antisemitism be so severe that these young people will develop a negative relationship with Israel both while at home and once they (hopefully) finally visit?.

During these trying times, Jewish educators everywhere are struggling with the realities of the current war, as well as their own internal conflict between being a beacon of hope for our students while struggling with our very own pain. I take myself back to that high school student with shattered dreams and try to find where in the journey did I shift my approach and give the dream another try. I wonder how much of their own feelings my own teachers had to hold back when they were both trying to keep hope alive for a slew of teens all while battling their own fear and pain as the Intifada gained strength. I look back in history at all the other points in time where the world turned its back on the Jewish people and all the educators who put their students first and kept the hope alive in hopes that their efforts would save at least one young Jewish mind from disconnecting for self-preservation.

The day my trip was cancelled was the day I said I no longer wanted to learn Hebrew since I would never have an opportunity to use it. 19 years later, as the pandemic hit and I was asked to teach Hebrew school to 4th graders, I called my mother 5 minutes before my class and laughed. I laughed at the young naive me who was so clueless about the true darkness that had shifted the course of my own Jewish journey, and the older me who, as the world faced yet another crisis, was picking up right where I had left off and becoming the light for the children who were having their realities stripped from them. 

As the world of Israel education faces a whole new (albeit unwelcomed) chapter, we must begin asking ourselves the challenging questions. How may we address Israel in a way that both lights the spark in young Jewish minds that will keep Zionism alive while remaining aware of the trauma and the world’s approach to the conflict and subsequent ripples. The approach I would dare to suggest is two-fold: We need to go back to the table and have a deep discussion of how to address Israel and the conflict in a way that is not only age-appropriate but that it also addresses the nuances that come with the political climate and minority groups who were already affected and now find themselves at higher vulnerability. Additionally, we must in no uncertain terms develop strong mental health support networks for students, educators, and leadership. In a world where the atrocities of the war are not only available to those on the ground but through all media channels, we need to be keenly aware of the incidence of vicarious trauma on all levels of the population.

As we go on with what is slowly becoming a painful new normal both in Israel and in the diaspora, we find ourselves with a choice to make: do we become the generation that gives up as the world turns its back on us and shatters our dreams, or do we fight through the darkness and draw light from wherever we can so future generations are better equipped to handle it? I recognize, as my teachers did before me, that drawing light into darkness requires both a Herculean effort and a deep analysis of our own Jewish identity and journey that is only addressed by working through discomfort and vulnerability.  As a human, I have lived and will continue to live through the grief that plagues us as this war rages on, but as an educator, I am committed to letting that search for new meaning fuel my commitment to Jewish and Israel education.




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