For Year Coursers, a Remarkable Chance to Confront the Questions

By Dr. Avi Rose
Director of Education, Young Judaea Year Course in Israel

aviAs I sit and contemplate how to begin addressing the confusing and deeply painful events of this summer, I see that I am not alone. Friends, colleagues, even those in the media are trying to make sense of what has taken place. We are all, it seems, asking the same questions: How did we get to this point? Could we have acted differently in order to prevent this conflict, or was it unavoidable? Did we wage a restrained and ethically minded military campaign? How can we end the current conflict in such a way as to begin a process of healing and move toward a just and lasting coexistence? Is there hope?

I contemplate all this as I, along with the other dedicated and experienced staff of Year Course, prepare for the arrival of our newest students. We know that they too will be asking these questions, in addition to ‘usual’ issues that we bring to our learning environment, questions concerning a personal connection to Israel, Judaism and Zionism? Does this mean that we need to set these issues aside in light of the current conflict?

I, for one, think that we do not. I believe that the situation highlights the overall questions that we have always worked with students to answer, questions about the nature of Jewish existence, the creation and growth of the Zionist ideology and the development of a modern State that attempts to function as a reflection of both. It seems that this is a real-time test case for the State of Israel and for the Jewish people. We have to confront some very tough questions concerning our ability to survive, prosper, and function in a manner consistent with our religious and ethical principles.

As we present the programming, travel, volunteering and informal education that will take place on Year Course, we will not shy away from the deep existential dilemmas of war, of life in the Middle East, and of the need to work, live, fight and survive in accordance with our cultural and spiritual code. By being here with us as Israel ‘picks up the pieces’ and reflects on what has taken place and what will come next, students will see how Israel has always functioned—a real place with a deep commitment to self-criticism and improvement. This is in many ways the only answer we can give to the tragic loss of life on both sides of this current conflict, but most especially to the parents, siblings, partners, children and friends of our fallen soldiers. It is for them that Israel will continue, will heal and will learn to re-balance itself in new and hopefully better ways as it seeks a path out of war and into a more promising future.

Far from being the worst time to come and experience a year in Israel, this is perhaps the best. Yes, Israel will seem less ‘pretty’ (though she is still physically stunning and worth exploring), less ‘fantasy’ and more reality—myths will be quickly shattered. However, the reality is in fact quite impressive; Israeli society will come together to mourn, to re-group and move on. Witnessing the unique Israeli response to such events, exemplary of the Jewish value of ahdut, or unity, can be a transformative experience for anyone, particularly a young and newly independent adult trying to grapple with their own Jewish identity.  The tone of conversation may not be soft or polite, but it is authentic and vital and something that every Jew should witness and weigh in on.

I know that Young Judaea is expert at keeping its participants safe from physical danger as much as is humanly possible. This summer, I witnessed the amazing work of colleagues in our logistics and short-term program departments as they shepherded groups out of risky areas while still providing them with sound educational and recreational experiences. It should be noted that all this was done while many of our staff were called into active duty. Only a handful of parents felt the need to pull their children out of Israel and all went home safe and sound.

Coming on Year Course this fall will be seen by Israelis as a great act of support and will go a long way toward assisting in the healing process. Students’ positive and compassionate energy, openness and desire to give something to Israel will be deeply valued. No less significant, I believe, is what it will do for the students themselves, since they will have the chance to experience Israel over a long period of time in many different ways and locations. They will speak and interact with Israel and Israelis and will, no doubt be strengthened and challenged. They will see, in an adult fashion, the value of Israel, the resilience of her people and the strength of her culture to deal with the every day and extraordinary circumstance of life here.

In 1973, a group of Year Course graduates refused to abandon Israel or their commitment to their Jewish and Zionist principals in the face of a devastating and debilitating war. They went on to found Kibbutz Ketura in Israel’s southern desert, an enterprise that thrives and reflects all that is most valuable to our movement and people. Who knows what creative and effective response the Year Course graduates of 2014-15 will create in the wake of Operation Protective Edge? Who knows how they will contribute to the growth of the Jewish people and to the ideals that we strive to live up to? I, for one, look forward to being there to help launch their potential, guide them as they discover their power and challenge them to help build a better future for us all.