Moments that provide a glimpse of what we could yet create in this young country of ours. With cottage cheese stealing the headlines, doctors on strike, the peace process in an utter stall and the UN’s September showdown creeping ever closer, they are moments worth reflecting on, and sharing.
Some three years ago, an anonymous donor gave the Shalem Center (where I work) a generous grant to offer liberal arts enrichment programming to the country’s top high school students. Schools weren’t challenging the best kids, we knew; most of what they learned was being taught for the bagrut matriculation exams, and intellectual curiosity wasn’t being cultivated. So we assembled a staff of superb teachers and counselors and designed a program in which students would come to a handful of weekends a year and study Zionism, or Bible, or democracy.
Our staff set out to find the students.
Across the country, they visited the best high schools, met with the principals and other educational heads, and then interviewed the students. There was great interest – but also suspicion.
“The kids are interested, but parents are afraid of us,” one told me when she got back to the office.
“Afraid of what?” I asked.
Turns out we’d sent two teachers, one with a kippa and one without. Virtually all the parents were secular. What’s with the kippa? they wanted to know. And how can the program be free of charge? There’s simply got to be an agenda here, the parents said.
Thankfully, a few threw caution to the wind and let us have their kids for a few weekends a year. The seminars met in places relevant to the subjects – in Caesarea for “Thinking from the Beginning,” in Jerusalem for “The Bible and Us,” and in Arad for “A Jewish and Democratic State.”
Each weekend included study of a variety of texts on the subject at hand. Bible or Talmud. Plato or Aristotle. Nietzsche or Freud. Rousseau and Geertz. Quickly the students saw that the Bible and Aristotle were part of the same conversation – about great ideas, about the life meaningfully lived, about the good and the just, about what truly matters. They learned to huddle over texts and to argue – but to listen, as well. What they loved was that none of this mattered for the bagrut, and that there were no “right” answers. All that mattered was that they thought.
One of their teachers was the sort of person these secular kids never meet. He lives across the Green Line in a small community, in what the international press would call a “settlement,” has a whole bunch of kids – and he’s a remarkable teacher with as open and engaging a mind as one could ever hope to encounter. Perhaps he was the one who scared the parents, but these kids came to adore him, as well as his wife and kids.
A leading university scholar opened each seminar. I recall one particular professor, who’d walked in obviously wondering how he could have been cajoled into teaching a bunch of high school kids on a Friday afternoon. Within an hour, though, there he was, exchanging ideas and even arguing with these students, the passion and the energy overflowing the room. The kids didn’t let go, and walked him to his taxi at the conclusion of his session, still trying to get a response to one last question. As he got into the cab, smiling and exhausted, he seemed 20 years younger.
THREE YEARS went by. Very few students dropped out. They got busier in 11th grade, but kept showing up. By 12th grade, most had two feet out the door of their home and their high school, but they continued to attend. And then, a couple of weeks ago, we had a graduation ceremony of sorts. The staff decided that what we should do is show the parents what we’d done for these three years. So they assembled a set of texts, from Genesis, Maimonides and Kierkegaard – and had the students and their parents study in pairs just as the kids had done for years now.
There was only one problem in each of the groups that I joined for a few minutes – the kids had to elbow their way back into the conversation. These parents, the same ones who’d wondered what our agenda was or why we would actually teach their kids for free and with no religious or political ax to grind, left their children no space in the conversation. At one point, one of the young women about to graduate high school said, “Ima, you should let us speak, too. Why are you taking over the conversation?” It didn’t stop the mother, though: “Because it’s interesting,” she said. “I always loved this stuff.”
So why had life in Israel led her to drop the conversation? I wondered.
I stood at the side, watching. A room full of more than 100 people, all of them huddled over Genesis and Kierkegaard.
Kids tussling with their parents. Parents pushing back, saying, “No, I don’t think that’s what the Tanach means here.”
Scarcely a kippa in the room – just Jewish texts in dialogue with Western texts and with modern Israelis. I saw the students periodically getting up and hugging the children of this teacher – religiously and politically they came from different worlds, and now they were in tears at bidding farewell.
“You changed my child’s life,” more than one parent said to us that night. Perhaps.
But as I walked home in the afterglow of the learning and the tears and the thanks, I wondered – what if we’d also begun to change the country? What if each of these young people remembers, years from now, what it was like to bridge gaps political and religious, generational and dispositional – and many others – to think together, to study, to wonder, to imagine? What if someone picks up the ball from here and touches not dozens, but hundreds? Or thousands? What could these kids then make of this country? How would public discourse be different? What kinds of leaders would they demand, and become? And what kind of a country would they cultivate? Imagine. Just imagine.