JERUSALEM, Jan. 12 (JTA) — The high winds stirring up the sands at Masada added an epic Cecil B. DeMille air to the words of Rabbi Binny Freedman.
But 24-year-old Riva Saker of Deerfield Beach, Fla., wasn’t paying attention.
Freedman, a former Israeli tank commander, is one of many educators trying to raise dormant Jewish sparks within 6,000 young, mostly unaffiliated Jews on their first-ever trips to Israel.
Saker tried her best to tune out Freedman’s explanation of how and why a group of ancient Jewish zealots chose to commit suicide rather than surrender to the Romans.
She was crouched on one knee, facing the opposite direction, rubbing the red dirt on her hands and gazing at construction workers making repairs on the fortress. For her, thinking of the men who built massive structures like this one — that makes Jewish history come alive more than ancient war stories.
“Now that interests me, the construction of it,” Saker said. “Religiously, who dominated who for what reasons … ” her voice trails off.
Saker is the kind of Jew for whom Birthright Israel was created.
The product of a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, Saker was raised with very little Jewish identity. “I think we only did Shabbas, in my entire lifetime, about six times.”
Like most young people, she is searching, experimenting with religious and philosophical ideas. For her and the other 18- to 26-year-olds who are now taking advantage of a free, 10-day trip to Israel, part of that search involves defining their Jewishness and how — or whether — to express it at all.
American Jewish philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt spearheaded Birthright Israel, which has, as its ultimate goal, a free trip to Israel for every young Jew as a rite of passage, much like a brit milah or Bar and Bat Mitzvah.
But that is the long-term vision. So far, there are no immediate plans to bring high school-age youth to Israel in the Birthright program. That may happen by 2001 or 2002.
The big question is funding for the program, which was envisioned as a partnership among philanthropists, Israel and local Jewish federations. Israel has committed $70 million over the next five years, but allocated only $8 million in its budget this year. Jewish philanthropists, led by Steinhardt and Bronfman, donated $210 million, but so far many local federations have not committed to the project.
With no financial guarantees about the program’s future, Birthright is deciding whether to plan another trip in May or June. A decision is expected in the next couple of weeks.
But with all the discussion over funding and the controversy over whether such a program will inspire a Jewish commitment, if it were up to the participants — mostly Americans, but also from the former Soviet Union and other countries — they would keep it going.
Even young Jews who feel they have no place within Judaism – who ran away from it after what many say were horribly ineffective Hebrew school experiences – are engaging their minds. This, they say, could not have been done anywhere else but in Israel, among the shadows of their ancestors.
But touring ancient sites like the Western Wall brought two kinds of tears to many students. Some cried because it stirred dormant religious emotions; others cried because they felt nothing as they touched the Wall, and were disappointed in themselves for failing to experience a religious revelation.
“I was expecting to have this big profound experience, like I was going to get to the Wall and then tears were going to come, and it didn’t happen. I was really upset. Actually, that made me cry, that I didn’t feel anything,” said Laura Senft, 23, of Lincoln, Neb.
For others, though, seeing Jerusalem with their own eyes reconfirmed for them their reason for choosing to remain Jewish, when to float away would have been easier.
Michael Belle, 19, a University of Florida history major, didn’t necessarily need a trip to Israel to strengthen his ties to Judaism.
He came with the commitment, solidified by having grown up in Ocala, Fla., where he often felt culturally and religiously alone. He especially felt that sense of loneliness two years ago, when his mother passed away and a close Southern Baptist friend, in tears, told him, “I’m crying because your mother’s going to hell and I’m so sad because of that.”
So Belle came to Israel in search of a sense of place, a land to call home.
“It’s not that you find new things in the Holy Land,” Belle said. “It’s that you find the things that have sustained you, that have kept you as a Jew. This is the reward. I’ve already done my time.
“I’ve earned this trip after 18 years of isolation and sustaining my Jewish religion,” he added. “So, it’s not what I’ve gotten out of this trip, it’s what I’ve put in to get this trip.”
While Belle did not need any prodding to be inspired by Israel, the educators and tour guides participating in the 14 overlapping programs running in December and January helped the others along. The programs, run by various organizations, all followed basic educational guidelines.
Gedaliah Gurfein, a former writer for television’s “Saturday Night Live,” attempted to inspire the Birthright students by mixing references from the Kabbalah seamlessly with quotes from the British show “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
He told one group that their visit here should cause “the little Jew inside of you to pop out.”
It’s the “Jew inside” of all those who came in search of their Birthright that was the focus of a great deal of attention.
Richard Joel, the president and international director of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, which is bringing about half of the participants to Israel, said the young adults are not simply touring the sites of Israel, but they are being asked to think and discuss how these sites reflect their own identity. It’s part of an attempt to get away from today’s mantra of “I’m a cultural Jew.”
“If you push the students who say they are culturally Jewish, and ask them to tell you what it is, ask them to tell you about their story, you don’t hear a lot of culture, you hear a lot of vagueness,” Joel said.
Joel said that educating them about Israel’s struggles and history is meant to make them think about its place in Jewish history and in their own history.
Pride in Israel can translate into Jewish connection back home, said Michael Papo, executive vice president of Birthright Israel North America.
Walking out of the children’s exhibit at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, Papo pointed to an Israeli soldier. “You see that life will go on.”
“That sense of pride will hopefully open doors into people’s minds,” Papo said, inspire them to “take a Jewish class. Or a program at the JCC or Hillel. Life is full of these kinds of little decisions.”
But University of Arizona graduate school student Jesse Frantz, 24, is not convinced.
Frantz, an intense-looking young man with a mostly shaved head and ring jutting out of his left eyebrow, says his sense of Jewishness is not tied to Israel.
An atheist, Frantz said he probably won’t walk away from the trip with any religious convictions, but will have a better understanding of Israeli politics. He reads Israeli news before anything else.
Why? He pauses. “That’s a tough one. Because Israel is the Jewish homeland, and it’s just been drummed into me over and over again that Israel is important to Judaism.”
He says he’s still trying to figure out why.
Birthright participants toured the entire country — they floated in the Dead Sea, listened to settlers on the Golan Heights talk about their uncertain future, went hiking at the Ein Gedi nature preserve, visited Yad Vashem — but when asked about their most moving experience, most came back to the Western Wall.
Autumn Brietstein, 23, of New York City, who works for a nonprofit reproductive rights organization, has a problem with the separation of women at the Wall and with Orthodox Judaism. She also has a hard time finding a sense of spirituality in the rituals of Judaism. Still, the tunnels under the Western Wall moved her.
“I guess it comes full circle for me to be standing there, and to know that someday, to my great-great-great grandchildren, that place will still be important,” Brietstein said. “And it’s not that the place is more important than what’s inside — the religion, the spirituality, comes from within — to me, having a physical manifestation helps to make it meaningful.”
As for Laura Senft, who cried because she felt nothing at the Wall, she eventually “loosened up about it and I’m not expecting God to come down and say, ‘You’re not handling Israel the way I want you to.’ ”
So after her tears, she stood at the Wall and said a prayer. Usually, she feels very strange about expressing herself like that. She didn’t know what to say, so she said the Shema.
“I figured that was a good thing to say.”