December 11, 1997
Education Israel as a Core Requirement?
My daughter flew home for Thanksgiving with two college friends in tow. At the dinner table, the conversation revolved around computers and the antics of the Stanford Band. At some point in the course of that whirlwind four-day visit, Hilary informed me that, though she's been diligently studying Hebrew since she started college, a Junior Year Abroad at Hebrew University is no longer part of her plans. It's not that she's changed her mind about someday returning to Israel, where she spent an amazing summer two years ago. But she's convinced that, given the stringent requirements of the high-tech major she seems to have settled on, even a semester in Jerusalem would derail her progress toward her degree.
Like most American Jewish moms, I think of myself as both loving and pragmatic. And, so, I fully support Hilary's decision. When college students make their course of study a top priority, when they march steadily down the path toward graduation and employment, parents can't help but rejoice. Still, when I heard that Israel was no longer on my daughter's agenda for the near future, I couldn't help thinking of a recent breakfast gathering in Jerusalem, where Levi Lauer addressed a contingent from the Jewish Federation's Golden Anniversary Community Mission to Israel.
Lauer, originally from Ohio, was ordained as a Reform rabbi in 1972. He ultimately moved to Israel, became halachically observant, and assumed the directorship of a respected coed learning center, the Pardes Institute. He's currently affiliated with Jerusalem's Melitz Center for Jewish and Zionist Education. Each summer, he jets to California to serve as scholar-in-residence at the Brandeis-Bardin Collegiate Institute. Both here and in Israel, Lauer spends much of his time with young adults. As a parent, he also knows firsthand what it's like to raise Israeli children to adulthood.
One of Lauer's central themes is the difference between young Israelis and young American Jews. His own children have lived through the sealed rooms and gas masks of the Gulf War era. And they have gone a dozen times to the cemetery on Mount Herzl to bury friends who died in military clashes or terrorist attacks. They accept being part of a culture where those still too young to shave are required to make life-and-death decisions on the field of battle.
Today's American Jewish kids are different, both from Israelis and from earlier generations of Americans who had their own wars to fight (or to resist). American young people, says Lauer, "take it for granted that the world is a safe place. They don't foresee real suffering. They literally believe that anything is possible.
"[As a father], I envy your kids the fact that the hardest decision they've ever had to make is what car to buy or who to go out with or what graduate school to apply to."
But an objective eye could find American Jewish young adults "intolerably pampered." They are lacking in basic moral education. They've never really had to think beyond themselves.
The fact is: Young American Jews need Israel, and Israel needs them. Israelis can teach our kids the value of commitment to a community. As Lauer puts it: "They need to learn the language of their ancestors. They need to share the experiences of real people, not Zionist propaganda." In exchange, American Jewish young adults can make important contributions to Israeli society.
Beyond studying at Israeli universities, they can -- and should -- significantly participate in Israel's daily life. Lauer makes clear (though many who heard his talk failed to grasp this important distinction) that he does not advocate sending American Jews to fight on Israeli battlefields. But he does envision young Americans forming a sort of Job Corps to do the public work for which Israel is currently importing Third World laborers at enormous cost. He can imagine Americans building roads and hooking up Arab villages to Israel's central power grid. Such labor would teach them the meaning of social interdependence. As a bonus, it "just might lead them to marry someone who's also Jewish."
Lauer doesn't let young Israelis off the hook. Like their American Jewish counterparts, they are developing a tendency to measure their self-worth in terms of intellectual achievement and material gains. Israelis, he quips, "will buy anything that's electric and lights up -- even if it doesn't work."
But young Israeli men and women are soon taught by their army experiences that they are not a world unto themselves. Klal Yisrael takes on a whole new meaning for those who, as part of the Ethiopian rescue operation, were asked to "get up in the middle of the night and schlep 14,000 Jews six centuries." Israelis may grumble about the constant need to look out for their fellow Jews, but they pitch in when the chips are down. Lauer's message is that, through an extended stay in Israel, young Jewish Americans can absorb the same lesson.
But how willingly would our kids disrupt their busy American lives to make the trip? Here's where parents come in. Lauer gently suggests that we, in our eagerness to give our youngsters the best that America has to offer, have steered them down the wrong path. He proposes that we start teaching our children, from age five onward, "not to go to UCLA or Stanford but to go to Israel between the ages of 18 and 20."
Later, perhaps, after they've learned from Israelis what it's like to live in a Jewish society (and, by their own example, have helped teach Israelis the value of American Jewish pluralism), they can