Searching for God in Israel: Travelers Tackle Tough Issues

On a recent Shabbat, Jerusalem’s Olive Tree Hotel was filled with sounds reminiscent of the Tower of Babel.

If you stood in the middle of the street-level lobby, you heard a mishmash of young Reform and Conservative voices belting out their respective liturgical songs in different corners.

While those involved in the Orthodox service were undisturbed upstairs, a few dozen other Birthright Israel participants, who chose an alternative service, sat straining to hear one another as the sounds of the other Shabbat services filled the room.

For many of the young people in the hotel lobby, to be worshiping at all was a rare event, because this trip to Israel was created especially for the unaffiliated. But for those who chose the alternative service because they did not feel comfortable participating in any religious service, Shabbat turned into an opportunity to hold a discussion group.

What they touched upon was the very reason they caught a free ride to Israel in the first place: They are searching for a place within Judaism where they can reconcile their personal beliefs and experiences. For some Birthright Israel participants, themselves products of mixed marriages, it means not ruling out the possibility of marrying out of the faith. For others, it means searching for a way to be Jewish without believing in God.

Those who ran the 14 separate educational programs for Birthright Israel were prepared for young skeptics and tailored much of the Israel experience especially for them.

Most Birthright Israel participants interviewed said they hadn’t really thought too much about the larger issues of Jewish continuity — whether they would marry Jews or raise Jewish children — and this is the first time they have taken the time out of their lives to think about it. The same is true of their examination of their belief, or lack of belief, in God.

The alternative group on Shabbat sat in a circle and discussed their concept of Judaism as a code of conduct, of moral behavior, that does not necessarily need a God.

In fact, said 18-year-old Anna Guercio, “I have a rabbi who doesn’t believe in God.”

That statement from the Brown University student who attends a Secular Humanist congregation near Chicago, caught the attention of Carey Simon, 24, of Austin, Texas, who approached Guercio after the service.

Simon’s father is Jewish, his mother is not, and he was raised with no formal religion at all. He decided to explore his Jewish side through Birthright Israel because even though he does not believe people should base their lives on “dictates or commandments,” he is attracted to the “tightness” of Jewish families and Judaism’s emphasis on morality.

He said the Birthright Israel trip has changed his perceptions because he now sees that “Judaism is more than just a religion, it’s a lifestyle.”

Still, he said, there is that problem with the concept of God, something he said he’ll continue to struggle with.

He delved deeper into conversation with Guercio, who is considering becoming a Secular Humanist rabbi. Maybe there is something to being an atheistic Jew, Simon said.

The reason many of them don’t believe in God, Rabbi David Aaron told a group of students a day earlier, is that Hebrew school fed them a child’s vision of God from which they ran away before they allowed it to evolve into a more sophisticated concept.

Aaron is founder and dean of Isralite, an Israel-based educational program that centers on Kabbalah and Jewish spirituality. It was one of the groups that provided the educational content for the first wave of Birthright Israel.

Along the way to Qumran and Masada, Aaron stopped his busload of students at a synagogue in Mitzpe Jericho and gave them a lecture about how they need to stop thinking of God as a “big blob in the sky.”

Aaron, who told the group that he was “not suggesting you believe in God,” introduced them to Jewish mystical concepts of God’s existence within them, and their role as humans in tikkun olam, repairing the world, through mitzvot.

The rabbi believes the reason his Birthright Israel program filled up so quickly was because of how trendy study of Kabbalah has become. His program gave his skeptical students both a popular and intellectual base from which they could start formulating their own relationship with Judaism.

Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, which brought over half of the first 6,000 Birthright Israel participants, took the concept of a personal relationship with Judaism a step further through a series of what it called “identity conversations,” using sites in Israel as launching points for investigation.

“The profile of these students is that they’re not enormously plugged in or enormously literate” in Judaism, Richard Joel, Hillel’s president and international director, said, adding that one of the goals of this experience is “to get them to feel inside a deep sense of passion about owning their Jewishness.”

For example, Joel said, before a visit to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the Hillel tours had a session on being Jewish called “Special or Normal, You Choose.” In it, they contrasted the religious nature of Jerusalem with mostly secular Tel Aviv. They looked at a text from the Torah that describes the Jews as the chosen people, and a statement from Israel’s founding father David Ben-Gurion about how Israel will have become a normal nation when Jewish prostitutes and Jewish thieves speak Hebrew.

Joel said that as a result of their experiences, some participants had decided to have long-delayed Bar and Bat Mitzvahs while they were there, and one cried when she chose a Hebrew name for herself.

“I don’t think it’s just come here to Jewish Disneyland,” Joel said, adding that Israel, its land and its people can “provoke the Jewish renaissance that the world needs and we can provoke Jewish involvement by using our country as, `ki mitzion, taytzay Torah’ — `From out of Zion will come forth Torah.’”

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