Israel and the Becomings of a Young Jew Today
by Garrett Ritholtz
To be a member of the people of Israel is to not only be immersed in its culture of determination and courage, but also its deep-rooted history dating back thousands of years. Connecting with the people of Israel is understanding that life in Israel is much more than simply coexisting in a country, but rather knowing how Israel came to be.
The coming to fruition of this vibrant country goes beyond the knowledge of any individual in the past, present and future. Although I do not live as a full time resident in Israel, I have the privilege to be here for the summer and learn more about Israel, as well as myself. I also have had the privilege of being spiritually connected to the people and ancestors of the Jewish people, a feeling that I had trouble connecting with in the United States.
I made this strong connection first at the Western Wall in Jerusalem - a place that has been held in the hearts and minds of Jews for 2000 years since the destruction of the Holy Temple and the exile of Jews from their indigenous home in the Land of Israel. My first week in Israel, I visited the city of Jerusalem for 3 days and experienced what Elie Wiesel once said - a man does not walk away from Jerusalem unchanged. Upon my visit, it was Shabbat, an experience different than visiting on any other day as Jews from every walk of life came to be as close to the holiest of site in Judaism as we are allowed to be, since Jews are, sadly, not allowed to enter the Temple Mount itself as a result of the hateful lies and denial of Jewish historical rights to the place.
Walking through Zion Gate to enter the Old City, I encountered thousands of people filled with joy - praying, laughing and cheering, even dancing. Perhaps not all like-minded people, but a crowd who accepted anyone and everyone that was there to welcome Shabbat and the holiness of the day. I personally did not know many of the songs and prayers being said, but despite that, I was invited with open arms to join a large group of people praying together. This is when I first realized that my home not only lies in America, I have a home here. A home in the state of Israel, with my people, in a place where any kind of Jew is free to be a Jew.
An aspect of Jewish identity I think many people struggle with is accepting their own identity. Where I come from in Long Island, I have friends that live in areas that are not very populated by Jewish people, so they don’t have the same connection to their Jewish identity as someone from Jerusalem would. Experiences such as Birthright are so crucial to fully understanding one's Jewish identity, as well as the identity of themselves in general. I found myself through Birthright, and what makes it so phenomenal is that anyone can do it.
Israel is a country of acceptance, a place of safe-haven and inclusion. Yet the media and popular narrative deny this truth - sadly with great ease. This makes it even more challenging for the many people struggling with developing their Jewish identity, and trying to find it for someone who lives far away can be difficult.
Oftentimes, people are not well educated in Israel or exposed enough to the world outside of their channels of news and information, so many Jewish people do not have the initiative to support and learn about the country.
This is part of what the Israel Forever Foundation is striving to change. Focusing on our shared connection as a nation, the mission of this small grassroots organization recognizes that not everyone has the passion, or talent, or even interest to be a frontal advocate for Israel. Yet, when given the resources to become more familiar with the essence of what it means to be a Jew today, that they are a part of something greater than just our geographical or political circumstances, more disassociated Jews could gain an appreciation for their own role in our collective destiny. As a result, it becomes that much easier to embrace the history as one’s own, and with greater pride.
However, more often than not, this isn’t the case. The establishment of the country of Israel has aroused a negativity unknown to any other nation or legal state in the world. Being present there, seeing the society, taking note of the intricacies of Israel that defied the propaganda and stereotypes, allowed me to form a connection with the people, the culture and my Jewish identity. Although this was easier to do upon coming to Israel, there exists a wealth of resources that can be utilized to enable other young Jews to make this connection even if they cannot or do not think that Birthright is for them. Otherwise, I fear it will be almost impossible for most to be able to really understand why Israel matters so much.
Knowing the history of what the Jewish people have went through not only during the Holocaust, that dominates as a source of Diaspora Jewish identity, but also dating back thousands of years of endurement. The people before us - the Jewish pioneers and settlers of the 1000 years before the establishment of the modern state of Israel - are the reason we have a standing, independent and highly functional country in our ancestral homeland.
What are these people to us if we have no way to understand them or what they fought for? In addition to providing resources to increase education and finding a connection to the country, it is also important to thoroughly understand the “story of Israel''. This is a very tough concept to grasp for many. If the fact that people come from different backgrounds and ideologies, different political views, and religious leanings were to be understood beyond the endless conflicts that arise - whether about egalitarian prayer at the wall, public transportation on Shabbat, the inclusion of Jewish ethics in Israeli law, or the matter of the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict - it might reduce people’s polarizing views, the positively altering the “story of Israel” as it is being shared with today’s young generation and, inevitably, to the future generations that will follow after us.
Given the struggles to interpret this story and for all groups to try and find a fair medium within the story, Israel Forever prides itself on bridging the “geographical gap” of Jews, to try and help them approach our ancient nationhood with new eyes and a refreshed heart. Inviting all Jews to become Virtual Citizens of Israel and deepen their Jewish identity, this small organization has big dreams - to help people remember that there is a love and pride for our people, history, land and heritage as Israel that can be uncovered to empower their identity development and push them forward to great and worthy ideals.
I believe all Jews, no matter where they are located, should have access to the necessary tools to bring out their inner Judaism and be able to learn about how they are connected to Israel in their own way. One way to increase individual Jewish involvement is to increase interaction with other Jews on whatever platform most speaks to them. An example of such an interaction may include becoming involved in discussions, sharing Israel Forever’s informative, apolitical links into the social media platforms or discussion boards such as Reddit or Quora. Offering as many options as possible to people about things they want to explore warrants a high chance of interaction. This can also be translated into videos, where an Israel Forever ambassador creates a short video about specific topics that they believe will be beneficial for young and older Jews to explore or help them with certain material they want to brush up on.
Strengthen, celebrate and educate. This is just a small scope of what Israel Forever and I strive to achieve. I want to be a part of empowering people, just as the unique and beautiful country of Israel has done for me. Learning and growing within yourself and Judaic studies goes a long way, longer than some may think.