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Universal Jewish Service: An Idea for the New Year

January 2, 2014

Mormon2I was at a simcha in the States recently – one of those wonderful, lavish but deeply tasteful events, with hundreds of committed Jews, many religious and many not, celebrating in the best of ways. It was so pretty, so joyous, so elegant, that I picked up my phone to take a picture for my kids. As I held up the phone and pointed it, though, it pinged.

Before I could even focus on taking the photo, an alert on the screen blurted: “Israeli soldier killed on northern border by shots fired from Lebanon.”

Stunned, I simply sat down. I was stunned not by the fact that such things happen in Israel, because we know that they do, but because of the sudden reminder of how different life is between these two Jewish communities. Here we were, the men in tuxes and the women in evening gowns, a terrific orchestra playing, no security person in sight, enjoying one of those great moments of life, and then… the alert from the iPhone.

I did eventually take the picture, but realized, days later, that I hadn’t shown it to my kids. It just seemed… well, complicated. They would have no reason to imagine that one event took place almost as the other horrific moment was unfolding, but I did. So the photo just stayed safely on my phone, saved but not shown.

But the photograph, and the screenshot (which I saved) continued to trouble me: the world’s two largest Jewish communities are now living lives almost indescribably different, and decreasingly intersecting. One side lives, despite the sickening gun violence in America, with a fundamental sense of safety, the other – even in times of relative peace – with a low level of dread not far below the surface. One side’s 18-year-olds go off to college, the other’s off to the army. One side’s kids view college immediately after high school as part of the state of nature, while the other’s grow up imbued with the notion that the Jewish people need them to give years to protecting it, before they go on and make their lives.Mormon1

And I began to wonder: Is there anything that we could or should do to create a sense of shared destiny among the radically different young people of these two communities? It was then that I recalled an evening that we had at home about a year ago. A friend from the States asked if we would host the daughter of a friend of his for an evening. She was studying at the Brigham Young University Jerusalem Center, and was anxious to meet Israelis.

We invited her, gladly, and within a few days she’d shown up for dinner with two friends, also studying at the Mormon center. They were great young people: smart, inquisitive, thoughtful about what they were seeing and learning in Israel – and about to head back to the States, and then off to start a year or two of service to the Mormon community.

As they told it, young Mormon men are encouraged to serve two years; women are also welcome to serve, and they often give a year or two. The two women we hosted that night were both headed to Europe to serve in Mormon communities there – for at least a year, possibly longer. They were doing it not because they wanted to spend a lifetime being missionaries or even working for the church; they all had other professional aspirations. They were doing it because their community had raised them to believe that part of being a member of the Mormon community meant taking a year or two and giving back.

Mormon4Which got me wondering: What would happen to our increasingly fractured Jewish world if, despite all our differences, we did something like the Mormons? What would happen if Israeli kids went off to the army or to national service, and some American (mostly but certainly not exclusively Orthodox) kids, as they already do, continued to come to Israel to study in a yeshiva, seminary or work in some other service program… but we added to the mix many of the rest? What if some significant proportion of American Jewish high-school graduates, who did not wish to study or even be in Israel, served the Jewish people in Europe, or in South America? They could teach English, volunteer in a host of different settings, get to know an entirely different Jewish community, and see themselves as part of a worldwide people in a way they hadn’t heretofore.

And what if South American and Mexican kids – and many others – were doing the same thing, meeting Americans, Europeans, some Israelis whose national service might send them abroad? Religious and not, from wherever they might be on the political map, couldn’t they all spend a year giving back to the Jewish people, because – like the Mormons have taught their kids – if your community is important to you, you give back to it?Mormon3

If some Israeli agency coordinated this sort of international, worldwide program, an Argentinian teenager serving her people in Odessa could still be connected, somehow, to the Jewish state. What if every person who wished to spend at least a few weeks in Israel during the year of service? It would cost money, but Taglit-Birthright would also have seemed impossible to fund before we saw its effectiveness. Could we rebuild a sense of Jewish peoplehood across the globe, across religious and political divides, transcending culture and even language?

None of this would bring an end to those heart-stopping moments when, wearing a tux and listening to the orchestra, your iPhone reminds you how different reality is back home. Those differences will be with us forever. But they might be mitigated, at least, by our knowledge that when we tell our kids that “We are One,” we are finally doing something concrete to show them that we mean it.

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