When I first found out about The Nachshon Project, I thought that this could not sound any more amazing. What kind of camp counselor would pass up an experience to study and live in Israel for a semester and it be socially acceptable to talk about camp every day during that experience? When talking to Rabbi Zeff and Rabbi Cohen about this program, I remember saying that I felt like this program was made for me in every single way. I automatically felt like I would have a connection with everyone on this program. Though every camp is different in ways, every Nachshon Fellow has a passion and love for what Jewish summer camps stand for, and that is already a huge commonality that we had.
I grew up on the trajectory to be a Jewish leader. Every typical Jewish experience, I received. I expected to continue in this path, get further involved in the Jewish youth education world. And it was seemingly expected of me.
Right before my third summer on staff at camp, college exposed me to a new field of work. I unexpectedly fell in love with the science behind functioning relationships and families, and decided to pursue that passion. I was unsure of how camp, and a Jewish future career, fit into that.
So when I decided to join The Nachshon Project, I was not only completely unsure of what to expect, but at the same time, trying to process how to fit Jewish leadership into what I wanted to do.
But as the weeks left in American started dwindling, I started settling on expectations. I expected to have fun. I expected to do cool things. I expected to get along with the cohorts, and learn about their camps.
When I first decided to attend this program, I didn’t know what to expect. I definitely didn’t expect to meet 20 other amazing people who share the same love of Judaism, camp and Israel that I do. Arriving at Nachshon in January, I had already been in Israel for the fall semester at Tel Aviv University and had experienced your normal study abroad program, going to school and doing organized activities. What I hadn’t been able to experience however, were people who I related to like the people on this program.
One of the amazing things about our group of Fellows is that everyone comes from a different background. Some of us come from the Reform movement and others come from the Conservative movement. Because of this, we all have different views and beliefs which allows for everyone to learn from each other. Some of my favorite parts of this semester so far have been the informal conversations that I have had with my Nachshon Fellows, whether in response to a speaker, or just while walking to class. In addition, some of the most interesting things I have learned are the beliefs and customs of everyone else both at camp and in their home life. Even though I don’t agree with everyone on everything, I know that their beliefs are as strong as mine and I know that they are important and matter to them.
Over the last two months, to say a lot has happened would be a gross understatement of reality. As a Nachshon Fellow, I have made my own sushi, spent an afternoon at Google headquarters here in Israel, eaten cholent for the first time, discussed texts both old and new, met leading figures of the Jewish professional world, been to over a half dozen different synagogues, and have been exposed to twenty other students from across the United States of America who are all deeply passionate about pursuing their dreams to improve the world in which we live. Furthermore, these are only a handful of the organized experiences put on by the Nachshon Project. The cohort has travelled far and wide and made use of the myriad opportunities that Jerusalem and all of Israel has offered us.
When I applied for the Nachshon Project, one of the things I looked forward to most was the chance to spend my time in Israel with likeminded people. Camp people understand camp people, and I knew that having the chance to learn and grow with other camp people would put me in my comfort zone and surround me with people with similar backgrounds, opinions, and struggles. Yet, every time we encounter a speaker, an idea, or a text, I find that our group of seemingly very similar individuals divides into many different pockets of convictions and opinions. Those moments of difference have actually been my favorite part of my experience with the Nachshon Project, because the beauty of our cohort lies in all of our distinct backgrounds and ideas. The nurturing and accepting Nachshon community allows our differences of opinions to coexist and inform each other. Through these dialogues, we have learned a great deal about each other’s communities, which sheds light on the kinds of values we will carry forward as we become Jewish leaders.
The truth is, we all have different skills and abilities, but also different perspectives, priorities, and positions when it comes to the American Jewish community. Rather than let those differences divide us, we have been challenged to understand each other very clearly, learn from each other, and develop our own convictions. Through this process, we have all grown in ways that we had not expected. In America, we are often labeled by movements, views, or organizations. Here in Israel, some labels also exist, but we have been able to step out of labels that sometimes limit us in America, and simply explore what it means to be Jewish.
When we return to America, labels may once again help us understand which community we want to join and serve, but I think it’s incredibly important that our growth as Nachshon Fellows begins in Israel. I feel blessed to have had this chance to reflect upon and develop my own views through my interactions with people who think like and who embrace different kinds of Judaism than mine.
Jewish tradition has always find immense value in preserving a multiplicity of voices and opinions, and I think our ability to appreciate the many voices within Judaism, even if they seem to stand at odds with some of our own most fundamental views, will make all of us more effective Jewish leaders. Because of the many voices in Judaism, a true Jewish leader must know how to listen to and interact with other Jews to break down the walls between communities and foster a more cohesive and respectful Jewish community.
Written by Aaron Spiro
I can’t believe that my semester in Israel as part of the Nachshon project is almost halfway done. It feels like just yesterday when I got on a flight to Israel, not really sure of what I was going to be doing. While there have been a lot of ups and downs, there has also been a lot of new knowledge gained from these experiences. Of all the programs that we have done thus far, one definitely stuck out the most: our meeting with Avraham Infeld.
It started just as any other introduction would, with remarks about all of the amazing things Infeld has accomplished. During the introduction, I kept my eye on Infeld, and he showed no pride or happiness to hear about himself. After the remarks were completed, he sat up straight, and yelled one single word: PASSION!
We were all startled and amazed. The first word out of the former director of Hillel and Birthright was passion? I didn’t even know what to make of it. It came out of left field. And he really did yell it. After our hearts slowed back to a somewhat normal pace, we started hearing about his experiences. The whole time he talked, the same theme kept reoccurring: Jews. Not as a religious entity, but as a people. He had a very good point. Judaism has become a religion with such a variety of sects: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform etc. But back to its roots, it is about the Jewish People. I fell in love with this idea, because lately I have felt as if I am surrounded by people in Jerusalem that don’t even believe in crediting Reform or Conservative Judaism. As a reform Jew myself, I feel as if I am in 1947, fighting not just for recognition, but acceptance. According to Infeld, we are all Jews, and the sect is irrelevant. So how can I call myself a Jew, when others of my kind are still dividing men and women during service, and not even accepting all people?
In the few short months that I’ve been here, Israel has shown me that there are many different types of people in this World, and it is imperative to remember that wherever you come from, know that you should not judge someone based off of race or religion, but who they are as a person. It is true, some Arabs have done bad things, but so have Israelis, and so have Americans. No one is perfect, no one is even close, and for sure everyone has his or her flaws, quirks, and idiosyncrasies. If you keep an open mind, you will find amazing people from all over the World, regardless of the things you may not agree on.
Written by Jesse Nagelberg
There are times when I would like the world to be black and white. Being asked questions is one of those times. Things would be so much easier if every question had a single and simple answer. But that is not how questions work. Each question can have many answers, and many times, being asked a question raises even more questions.
Since being accepted to The Nachshon Project in early November, 2014, I have been asked the same question over and over again: “You’re studying abroad in Israel? What are you doing there/here?” In the beginning, I found it a really hard question to answer in a way that truly painted the picture of what it means to be a Nachshon Fellow. To some people, I answered that I was studying for a semester at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and to others, I answered that I was participating in a Jewish leadership program. There were times I told people that it was a leadership program for camp counselors and others when I said it was a program for aspiring Jewish communal leaders. And while all of those answers are true, they each only explain a small piece of the puzzle. There were even occasions when I took the time to try to explain the many pieces and parts of the program, that extend far beyond the confines of a single semester abroad. And while those explanations did a better job of explaining this experience, I slowly realized that my answers were going to continue to change and be better defined as I continued this experience.
Similarly, I am finding that I am changing, too. The person that arrived in Israel on January 14th is not the same person I am today, and is definitely not the same person who will fly back to New Jersey on June 4th. My time in Israel so far has been spent pushing myself to try new things and expand my horizons. From finding new foods in the shuk and trying out different synagogues to taking classes on new subjects and interacting with all different types of people, I have been able to form a better picture of my beliefs and the way I understand the world around me. This place and this program are the ideal places to grow, learn, and change, because with each day, I have the opportunity to experience a multitude of cultures, political opinions, religious practices, and ways of living. Each time I do, I ask myself, what about this person or experience do you relate to and how can this apply to you?
The world is not black and white. Israel is the perfect example of that. There are dozens upon dozens of ways to look at each scenario and each question. On one hand, so many unknowns can be daunting, but by filtering my questions through the lense of personal growth, development, and exploration, I can make sense of the seemingly never-ending list of questions. Yet, among all the questions, I know one thing for sure, that I am loving asking my questions and searching for the answers!
Written by Rachel Glazer
This semester, I have stepped beyond the boundary of the wide-open fields we roam in the Reform movement and instead have entered the rocky valley of pluralism, tripping over Jerusalem stone along the way. This odyssey and the trials that come with it are not unwelcome. The Nachshon Project has brought in and taken us to see some fantastic speakers, each one knowledgeable and challenging. We have talked to social activist rabbis, social media experts, Israel advocates, trail-blazing journalists, world-class Jewish educators, and more. We strolled through the Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Bnei Brak one night, and the next, had a conversation with an Israeli Reform rabba whose opinions seemed just as radical to me. I have loved and despised Jerusalem in the same breath, perpetually torn between longing to feel a part of the Jewish people of Israel and feeling apart entirely from the Jews of my North Georgia mountains.
At home, my Jewish identity is largely defined in the negative: I am not Christian. I am not Orthodox. I am not Shomer Shabbos, kosher, an alumnus of NFTY, familiar with the Mishnah, and on and on. There is more to me than what I am not, of course. I am a Jewish educator through my work as a unit programmer at URJ Camp Coleman. I have worked to be a voice for religious minorities on my campus. But as important to me as they are, these diffuse samples of Judaic involvement don’t form a coherent story in isolation, let alone in the context of the Jewish State. My challenge is figuring out the role and meaning of this part of my life which is constantly an undertone to my interactions and contributions, yet cannot be framed in the center of my experiences at home nor in the heated amalgam of Israeli Jewish life.
Contrary to many students my age, I don’t have a “Plan” yet. There’s no suburban front lawn as the backdrop to the next act of my life in which I spend a neat three years in graduate school and land the dream job the moment I remove my cap and gown.
When I think of the work I feel compelled to do, it undeniably has to do with women’s rights. The injustice I witness second-hand through blogs, books, and videos must not continue if the world is to progress in this century in matters of health, science, thought, education and basic human rights. Even in my own more liberal environment, I see self-hate and undue self-censoring in so many of my teenage female campers, and it is lamentable– and preventable.
I know that I have the drive and capacity to contribute the global movement toward giving women and girls self-worth and the tools to fortify their communities in an essential way.
Our prodigious speakers this semester have shared precious expertise and wisdom with us, but they have also revealed to me that organizations are just made up of people, and people get things done largely by consociating. Now that I am learning the right questions to ask and the right people to bug, the world seems much smaller, and making a substantial impact through precise and meaningful work is not as impossible a task as it once felt.
Before I can effectively formulate a Plan, I must tease apart the convoluted fibers of my instincts and inclinations. The undertaking I currently face is to identify where in my paradigm spirituality intersects with this urgency to ally with women worldwide to bring about the immense contribution they can make to this planet if afforded the education, resources and respect due to them.
Rabbi Zeff recently explained to me difference between chesed and tikkun olam, between lovingly fulfilling a mitzvah and performing a reparative act which spurs into motion a cascade of change. I did not come to Israel to learn for my own sake; I came here to learn for the benefit of others. If, in this journey, I can put a name to that yet obscure aspect of my Meaning of Life model, I will have triumphed– and I will have a lot of work ahead of me.
Written by Preston Neimeiser
When I left Israel in December of 2010, I left in tears. I made a promise to myself, sitting on the floor of Ben Gurion airport surrounded by four months’ worth of baggage, that I would return to this place I had begun to think of as a second home. In my time away, I continued to learn about Israel’s history from an external perspective, and developed my Hebrew as best as I could without the advantage of immersion. Every year away from Israel, I somehow felt closer, my desire to reconstitute my love for the land grew stronger and I imparted that love and desire on anyone who would listen. Even now, in the throes of a moral quandary, I describe Israel as a proverbial fairy land, where a Jew can truly be a Jew and any man or woman can live his or her life, free and able to grow and develop in their personal path. I still believe this, but returning as a twenty-one year old man has necessitated a recognition of the nuances that make Israel the country that it is. For instance, the student village which we’ve been living in for the past month is located in East Jerusalem. Although Har Hatzofim has been under Jewish rule since the inauguration of Hebrew University in 1925, kfar hastudentim is outside the 1948 armistice line; from various windows in my apartment I see drastically different narratives unfolding. When I look west, I see the old city in all of her glory — I don’t know if I could ever conceptualize an Israel without her. To the east is the Arab village of Isawiya, and I can’t help but be struck by the obvious contrast between the two areas. Right outside my bedroom window, I can see a “settlement” which seems to always be under construction. Before I came back here, this is the issue I thought would consume me the most, just as it consumes the media: “the conflict,” borders and people who can’t seem to get along. But honestly, the most cognitive dissonance I’ve been feeling has been deeply introspective.
Leaving here, I felt my Jewish identity was stronger than ever, ready to brave the acculturating diaspora. When I got home, I was President of my youth group, as well as the Religious and Cultural Vice President of NFTY’s Southern area region. I worked in Jewish summer camps, helping kids shape their own Jewish identities. I worked for Hillel, a face for the Jewish community on my campus. Coming back to Israel was supposed to be invigorating, but every day I feel one particular challenge weigh on me more and more heavily. Am I Jewish?
I never questioned it before, despite having been exposed to the contrary opinion for as long as I can remember. No, I don’t have a Jewish mother, but I owe an apology to her. I’m sorry, Mom. I’m sorry that I’m so insecure I have to lie about who you are, that that lie helps me to appease strangers whose world view I don’t share – for the most part anyway. It feels ironic, that on a program for Jewish leaders I have to question something so basic. Growing up in a reform synagogue I felt empowered to use the parts of Halakha that made sense to me, that I thought would help me to be the best person I possibly could be. I loved learning and discussing Torah, I loved Jewish culture and Israel and I engaged with them all on a daily basis so that I could “be a blessing” – I always thought that was more important than who your mother is. In the Shoah, I would have been murdered like any other Jew, without a moment’s hesitation. If I wanted to move to Israel, I could do so easily, but if I wanted to get married here it would be impossible without converting to a religion I’ve espoused since I was old enough to conceptualize myself. I’m tired of being defined by other people. I’m tired of feeling like I somehow have to prove myself worthy of the identity I never thought I could lose in the first place. It is me. It’s who I am. But is that enough?
Written by Tamar Katz
No speaker’s thoughts and ideas have resonated with me the way Matti Friedman’s did. Originally from Canada, Friedman made aliyah in 2005 and was a reporter for the Associated Press between 2006 and 2011. Following Operation Protective Edge this past summer, he published an essay that discussed the media’s bias against Israel.
Friedman’s presentation was so powerful because his argument was from a journalistic rather than political point of view. He discussed how the media puts a disproportionate amount of emphasis on the conflict to make it seem like “the biggest deal in the world,” when in the grand scheme of things the conflict is minute. Furthermore, Matti emphasized the importance of thinking about Israel in the context of the Middle East as a whole. Not that we should be comparing Israel’s human right’s record with that of Syria and Lebanon, but rather thinking of Israel as a country of minorities. In exploring the history of minorities in the Middle East, we can learn a great deal more about the conflict.
The genius of Matti Friedman is his ability to be both liberal in his beliefs, and pragmatic in their application. His ability to articulate those beliefs was truly inspirational, and I know hearing him speak was of benefit to all the Nachshon Fellows.
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