Reflections from a trip to Israel


This past week I had the gift of traveling to Israel for the first week of our 8th graders’ two week educational trip, a capstone experience that ties together much of what our students learn throughout their years at Gesher.  If I am 100% honest, I was nervous about the responsibility of managing the safety and well-being of so many other people’s children, but also excited to be with our beloved students and see my homeland anew through their eyes.  I’ve been to Israel many times, and lived there for a year, but traveling in Israel with students is truly a special gift.

The first week of the trip was centered primarily in Jerusalem, and included time in both the ancient sections of the Old City as well as modern marvels including Hebrew University, Ammunition Hill, and MobileEye (an Israeli start-up working on autonomous cars that was purchased by Intel for $15.7 billion).  Our students visited Yad VaShem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial museum, the day after Yom HaShoah VeHaGevurah, and they walked in tunnels under the Western wall that were build by our ancestors two thousand years ago.

This trip serves many purposes from an educational point of view, perhaps none more important than giving our children the opportunity to form their own, individual relationships with Israel.  Once they leave our walls, we know that they will hear many challenging perspectives on Israel, and we believe it is important for them to have seen and experienced with their own eyes the ancient and modern miracles that are their birthright.  Like any modern nation, Israel has surely taken actions can be validly critiqued.  That isn’t really the point.  The point is that Israel is demographically and in many other ways the future of the Jewish people, and any responsible Jewish education must include the tools and experiences necessary to connect students deeply and meaningful to both the history and the modern nation.

I am confident that our school is doing that in many ways, and after this trip, I am confident that our students will understand even more thoroughly just how important it is to be personally connected to Israel.

Our tour at Mobileye was led by Rabbi Mois Navon, who was initially an engineer, and was employee #16 at the Israeli startup.  He is originally from California, and grew up surfing with nominal Jewish identity.  After a personal journey that led him to engage professionally in Israel, he also eventually became an Orthodox Rabbi, and is still one of the leaders of the company.  Rabbi Navon spoke with us about the alignment he perceives between his own personal mission as a Jew to bring holiness into the world and the mission of the company, which he told us will literally save hundreds or even thousands of human lives daily by cutting down on the number of automobile fatalities that occur worldwide.

Plenty of startups have missions of improving the world, and many of them are doing just that.  I don’t think that many of them are grounding their work in the ancient tradition and mission of Judaism, which directs us to bring light to those around us and create holiness in the everyday world.  Rabbi Mois Navon brought this amazing truth to life for us in a very pragmatic, realistic way.

While we were enjoying a quiet, spiritual Shabbat in Jerusalem last week, Hamas and Islamic Jihad launched hundreds of rockets from Gaza into civilian areas in Israel, killing four and wounding several more.  Entire communities in Ashkelon and other southern regions spent hours in shelters and safe rooms, listening for the sirens to let them know when it was safe to emerge.  This took place far from our location, and our tour was not interrupted  or endangered in any way, but we processed this event with our students.  We can’t imagine what it is like for children to grow up with this sense of the world, or what it feels like for a parent to, out of nowhere, be directed to take their precious children into a basement because someone miles away wants to destroy them.

Our Chovesh (medic), Noam, a 25 year old veteran of elite units in the IDF, helped us understand his point of view.  He is a musician – a magnificent singer with a gift for instruments who is entirely self-taught.  He speaks Arabic like a native from his time patrolling in the West Bank, and has made real efforts to connect with Arabs, both Israeli and Palestinian.  He has empathy for their situation, but also understands the need for Israel to protect its citizens from those who want to kill or harm them.  He has been stabbed, and still maintains this complex, dichotomous position of empathy and security.  He would love to see real peace, but is prepared at any point to be called back into reserve service in order to protect Israel.

American Jews are lucky in many ways, and one major one is that our children’s lives are not at stake because they are Jewish.  In Israel parents know that their children will enter the IDF at 18, taking their turn defending a country that only turned 71 years old yesterday, but has been the center of our religious and national identity for thousands of years.  Israel’s military prowess is nothing short of miraculous, and standing on the hills of Jerusalem brings that home like nothing else – our people have been surviving and thriving there since the days of animal sacrifice, but have constantly had to stand and defend themselves in the face of devastating odds.  Modern, rational times make it hard to believe in miracles, but when you think about it, the odds and a rational explanation would tell you that Jews should have disappeared from the earth many years ago and many times.  Maybe there is more to it than that.

I am eager to hear our students’ reflections when they return, and look forward to sharing them in this forum soon.  Meanwhile, may our children return in peace, and may our homeland find peace.  Shabbat Shalom,