I’ve finally had a chance to write some more about what I’ve been up to recently. Hard to believe it's been almost a week since my parents left because the week went by so quickly.
This past weekend, our entire program had a Shabbat Mifgash (encounter) with a group our age, described to us as “our Israeli counterparts”. These Israelis in their early 20s will all be returning to work at various Jewish summer camps in the States as counselors and activity specialists, and they receive training from the Avi Chai Foundation. I admit a lot of us were unsure of how the weekend would go and were even skeptical at first, but it really couldn’t have gone any better. In just two short days, we created new friendships and bonds, while learning a lot about ourselves and about each other at the same time.
We all stayed at a hotel at a gorgeous kibbutz called Ma’ale HaChamisha that overlooks Abu Ghosh, just west of Jerusalem. Upon our arrival on Thursday evening, we were split into four groups, mixed between Americans and Israelis, and played some icebreaker games to get to know each other. The focus of the weekend was talking about our individual and collective thoughts and feelings about Judaism, Israeli/Diaspora and Israeli/American relations, and the future of the Jewish people.
One of my favorite activities was a game called “Beseder or Lo Besder” / “Okay, or not Okay”, where our group leader gave us an issue and we had to respond one way or the other, without passing or providing an explanation for our opinion. Following controversial topics, we could ask people to explain their answer and then had a back-and-forth for a couple of minutes before moving on to the next issue. We then broke into smaller groups of 6 or 7 and continued playing, and we had a few minutes to discuss our individual points of view for each issue. All weekend long, I was amazed at how our entire group was able to get into some real and honest discussion without becoming uncivil by shouting or interrupting one another, as is the temptation when talking about such emotional issues.
Meal times were a highlight of the weekend, and not just for the obvious reason of the great buffets in the dining hall (there was an amazing apple salad as well as delicious sweet potatoes, and of course a nice dessert spread). But the real reason I enjoyed our meals was the chance to sit and chat with the Israelis who were not in my group. We also had some additional free time, and since it was warm and sunny all weekend, many of us sat outside and continued the discussions we were having in our sessions.
Before the Mifgash, some of us on Otzma (myself included) had thought having this Shabbaton weekend earlier in the year would have been more beneficial to us because it would have given us more time to spend with our new Israeli friends before the end of our year. But looking back at all we talked about during the weekend and the way we related to one other, I don’t think the groups would have bonded the way we did, had it happened earlier. All of us on Otzma have not only learned a lot about Israel through our various educational seminars and trips, but we’ve lived here now for close to six months and have experienced so many things just through our everyday lives that no doubt helped us connect with this great group of young Israelis.
Last Wednesday, I attended the Jerusalem Conference at a 5-star hotel on Mount Scopus. There were sessions on all of the major issues facing Israel: Iran, the Palestinian conflict, economic growth, and American/Israel relations, just to name a few. Among the speakers were several heavy-hitters, most notably Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, head of the opposition Tzipi Livni, and Minister of the Interior Eli Yishai.
One of my favorite speakers was Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY), seen here in a picture with our own Tom Holtz. Congressman Engel spoke at length about US/Israel relations, specifically in light of the Obama administration’s questionable approach to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. He noted how despite his frequent criticism of the administration’s approach on policy issues, US/Israel relations remain very strong, and he spoke about the importance for American Jews to continue to lobby Congress to support Israel and US/Israel interests.
I learned the most from the session that dealt with activism on college campuses, approaching the issue differently than other seminars. While part of the time was spent discussing the hate-driven incitement on college campuses such as Concordia University and UC-Irvine, the bulk of the session dealt with problems on Israeli campuses and Israeli academia. This issue is perhaps more disturbing than the virulent anti-Semitism being displayed by leftist groups in the States, because it speaks to the continuity of the Jewish people. Unless and until we “clean up our own house” and recognize that Israeli college students are being subjected to the same brand of anti-Zionism as their American counterparts, we will be unable to effectively fight against the worldwide de-legitimization of Israel. I strongly believe the key to saving Israel is educating and engaging the young people, the future leaders of the Jewish people, and communicating the severity of what’s at stake.
Bibi’s speech was preceded by the tightest security I’ve ever seen – everyone entering the hall had to pass through three different security stations, including one that swabbed people’s hands for traces of gunpowder or explosives. The Prime Minister looked tired following his trip to Russia and his speech to the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, but he was still very interesting to hear. He began by noting the location of the conference, at the Regency Hotel on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, the spot of the assassination of Israel’s tourism minister, Rechavam Ze'evi, in 2001. He said he would never free Ze’evi’s assassins, whom Hamas wants released in any prisoner exchange for Gilad Schalit. He also talked about the importance and significance of having the conference in Jerusalem, the undividable, eternal capital of Israel and of the Jewish people, and gave specific examples of the kinds of economic sanctions the international community needs to enact against Iran.
And as always, a reward for those who made it to the bottom...a link to the newest batch of pictures