Peoplehood and Return

Categories: Jewish Identity
By Rabbi David Gedzelman

The intensity of an immersion experience, whether it be Birthright Israel, summer camp, a service trip, or a retreat, is difficult to maintain or replicate in any kind of follow-up or continuing programming. Away from home and one’s normal routine, a typical program participant can try on new and different perspectives on what it means to be part of a Jewish community. Learning and seeking meaning can come more easily. A suspension of disbelief, if you will, costs less psychically and experientially when one is basically on vacation.

The social experience of being with one’s peers 24/7 helps to cement the sense that various educational elements are somehow more real, authoritative and sustainable than similar elements might be back home. However, we risk much if we expect the power of the immersion experience to translate automatically into increased Jewish involvement and behavior when the trip ends. If momentum is to be captured, the seeds for continuing the experience must be planted before the immersion experience is over.

And so, many who have been grappling with how best to take advantage of the identity breakthroughs that are thought to happen during these experiences suggest building the possibilities of the “post” into the “pre,” being purposeful to “follow through” in program planning from the outset. And so goes the conventional wisdom. There is much value in this wisdom. But perhaps the fundamental difference between immersion experiences and the American Jewish life to which participants return, is not only one of intensity but also of quality. That is, a quality that cannot be replicated unless American Jewish life itself is wholly transformed. The sense one feels that Jewish life is somehow “sovereign” when one is in a total immersion Jewish experience is fundamentally not built into the fabric of what most American Jews experience in being Jewish in America. The disconnect, then,

between the immersion experience and the possibility of following that experience through is not only caused by a lack of programmatic continuity but results from the fact that American Jewish life and the immersion experience fundamentally contradict each other.

Birthright Israel participants regularly report that what they wake up to on their ten-day trip to Israel is not necessarily a deeper appreciation for the religious and theological elements of Judaism but rather to the fact that being Jewish is essentially about being part of a living, breathing people defined by an elemental familial connection. Prior to the trip, participants feel that being Jewish is of an exclusively religious category; being on the trip, they experience something quite different. They find out that the Jewish People is their family. When they return home, they genuinely seek out experiences that will capture this sense of Jewish Peoplehood only to discover that much of the apparatus of Jewish communal institutions and their offerings are organized around the principle that being Jewish is a matter of belonging to an American religious denomination, a community of faith — a religion, not a people.


One might argue that the disconnect between the Birthright immersion experience and American Jewish life is not reflective of immersion experiences in general, but specifically relates to an immersion experience in Israel, where Jewish Peoplehood, not theology, is at the heart of a common national identity. Fair enough. But do we really believe that what makes a Jewish camping experience, for example, powerful and different is the opportunity to share a common theology, as might be the case at evangelical Christian summer camps? Jewish camps and Christian camps may look similar on the outside, but what gets shared and reinforced is something very different. Jewish cultural sovereignty and Peoplehood is a central aspect of the experience one has at Jewish camp. It is interesting to note that camps organized by the religious denominations, which are not primarily Zionist at their core, have been, nonetheless, historically programmed with trappings of Israel and Zionism for decades. These camps feel, to some extent, like a taste of Israel with Hebrew names for bunks and age groups, Hebrew announcements pouring over the loudspeaker, Israeli counselors ever-present, and a sense of connection that transcends a strictly religious proposition. Yet, campers return to synagogue educational contexts in which Modern Israeli Hebrew takes second place, if not third or fourth place, to the far less relevant Hebrew of the prayer book. Rabbis sometimes complain that their best students come back from summer camp having experienced fullness and belonging that the synagogue cannot match. Perhaps the synagogue is built not to teach the comprehensive nature of Jewish Peoplehood but to religiously enhance a life whose center is elsewhere. Synagogues that incorporate, for both children and adults, a broader educational agenda that includes the arts, culture, the real life of contemporary Israel, a passion for Modern Hebrew, and a comprehensive sense of community, Peoplehood and connectedness have a better chance of being resonant for those who have been sparked and inspired by intensive Jewish immersion experiences.

A surprising phenomenon among returning Birthright Israel participants is a widespread interest to enroll in classes in Modern Hebrew language. This comes at a time when many Jewish educators have sadly given up on the prospect that American Jews could ever be interested in learning Hebrew. Perhaps Jewish educators, rabbis and lay leaders might be wise to take their cues from the intuitions of Birthright Israel alumni. They have decided that they want a Jewish life that isn’t afraid to be particular and culturally sovereign; if we, as a community, were bold enough to match their passion, we might be ready for their return.

Reprinted with permission from Contact, The Journal of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life

About Rabbi David Gedzelman

Rabbi David Gedzelman is Executive Director of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life.
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