A Place Called Home

Center for the Jewish Future Mission Studies Complexities of a Dual Homeland

To be a Jew in the Diaspora is to struggle with dual loyalties. On the one hand, Jews have established homes for themselves in countries where they feel a sense of purpose and belonging. Yet they also recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland. The students of Yeshiva University face an existential dilemma. Should they build a home in Israel, their ideological birthplace, or live and build community in the Diaspora?

Kiva Rabinsky prepares "A Place Called Home" participants
Kiva Rabinsky prepares "A Place Called Home" participants before their mission to Israel.

This is one of many dilemmas that Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF) will explore with “A Place Called Home,” one of five experiential and service learning programs offered this winter. During the one-week trip, funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation in an effort to inspire a commitment to Jewish education and Jewish communal work, “A Place Called Home” participants will travel across Israel exploring what it means to create a national home for the Jewish people. They will engage the Israeli landscape of micro communities: kibbutzim, development towns, immigrant villages, towns in Judea and Samaria and religious and secular communities.

“This program will provide our students with a unique opportunity to explore these issues of how a Jewish homeland is created and protected, helping them to clarify their roles as active contributors to the development of Israel—either from the Diaspora or from within—while they consider the benefits and costs of determining a place of residence,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, The David Mitzner Dean of the CJF. “We believe that an experience such as this one will allow students to concretize their identity as proud, passionate and committed Jews.”

“Living in Israel provides opportunities, meaning and purpose to everyday life that settling in the Diaspora cannot, but it also comes at a cost,”said Kiva Rabinsky, programs director for the CJF’s Department of Service Learning and Experiential Education. “By exploring these opportunities and these costs, our students will be exposed to the complex realities that Israel faces. They will internalize these struggles and be better prepared to educate others about Israel in an effective and accurate way.”

The program, led by Rabinsky and Rabbi Yaakov Neuberger, rosh yeshiva at YU-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), will focus on a few core topics of this tension.

The first, “The Cost of Living with Irresolvable Conflict,” centers on the Gush Katif disengagement, a community that—in the name of ideology and for the protection of the Jewish homeland—built and lost its residences in Israel. Students will interact with families and individuals from the settlement, including Rabbi Raffi Peretz, a former Gush Katif community rabbi who is now the chief rabbi of the Israeli Defense Force, in an effort to understand the severity of what happens when national and religious ideologies clash in the public and private arenas. This topic will be explored from multidisciplinary perspectives, focusing on the political, sociological, psychological and spiritual impacts of the disengagement.

“When it comes to dealing with our own struggles of having dual loyalties to a homeland, we have a lot to learn from the Gush Katif story,” said Rabinsky. “We need to learn how to live with conflicts that are at times impossible to resolve. This is by no means an easy task.”

Rabinsky will lead CJF's experiential and service learning program along with Rabbi Yaakov Neuberger (not pictured).
Rabinsky will lead CJF's experiential and service learning program along with Rabbi Yaakov Neuberger (not pictured).

Another core aspect of the program focuses on the cost of settling the land. “There is something inherent about the land of Israel that distinguishes it from any other land in the world.  It lives and breathes sanctity, history, culture and tradition, and tells the story of the Jewish people,”said Shuki Taylor, the CJF’s director of service learning and experiential education. “Students will visit yishuvim and kibbutzim, shedding light on the people who maintain a sincere connection with the land through tilling soil or settling hilltops, for example. But even that comes at an exorbitant cost—including the loss of life—and the Israeli People are constantly testing the boundaries of how high a price they are willing to pay for the sake of the land.

“I do not believe that this program is going to provide the Yeshiva University students with answers—they will need to answer these questions themselves,” added Taylor. “But I do believe that exploring and internalizing these crucial complexities will lead to a catharsis, which is no less important than reaching a resolution.”

Shira Preil, who is studying psychology at Stern College for Women, wanted a deeper understanding of aliya. “I guess like any idealistic teenager, I had visions of moving to Israel after high school or college and ‘living the dream,’ ” she said. “But during seminary and college, I’ve come to understand that life is more complicated and simply moving to Israel without thinking about the ramifications is neither the easiest or most responsible thing to do. The question becomes: how do I relate to Israel when I could very possibly be building a future home in America?”

The careful consideration and analysis of such questions is at the heart of “A Place Called Home.” After the mission each student will be expected to share these experiences in various venues in their local community. This enables the mission participants to process their emotions and learn how to effectively communicate with others.

Imparting these messages will occur not only upon the students return to North America but also during the program itself. Teaching opportunities within the trip, including lessons at an Ethiopian school, an Anglo school and a school for foreign workers’ children, are designed to help participants transform their experiences into teaching moments.

For Yehuda Cohn, a Yeshiva College student whose family moved from Queens to Jerusalem at the end of his ninth-grade year, “A Place Called Home” addressed questions he had already been asking. “This is an issue that struck close to home,” he said. “I personally struggled with the issues of making Israel home and defining myself in terms of where I grew up, where I now live and where I was headed—back to YU for college.” He added: “Ultimately, I want to be able to come back with a better understanding of Israeli society and America’s connection to it and share that with the wider Jewish-American community so we can realize how close we really are and how much we stand to gain from one another.”

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