Every study of Jewish identity demonstrates that immersive Jewish experiences, such as Jewish camps and Israel programs, are linked to increases in positive Jewish behaviors, such as giving to Jewish causes, lighting Shabbat candles, holding a Passover Seder, and fasting on Yom Kippur.
The key word is immersive. Most of our days and weeks are spent interacting with a very secular American or Christian world. Watching television, listening to the radio or to the music on our iPods, conversations with out co-workers or clients or customers or supervisors, all of these things take place outside of Jewish time and space, and with rare exceptions, do not call attention to specifically Jewish values or concerns. This is, of course, a very broad statement that does not apply to everyone. Some of us have Jewish playlists or podcasts on our iPods, or subscribe to RSS feeds from Jewish media sources or stock out netflix queue with Jewish themed or Israeli movies. Nonetheless, when living and working in North America (and even more so in West Michigan), our interpersonal contacts, at the supermarket, the bank, the pharmacy, the bakery, the restaurant, on the phone with DTE, Comcast, AT&T, or the City of Grand Rapids, will rarely end with a “Shabbat Shalom” or a “Hag Sameah!” In our day to day lives, we are decidedly not immersed in the language of Judaism.
An immersive Jewish experience is one which is structured to present us with Jewish opportunities throughout the day. A Jewish camp invites us to wake up surrounded by Jews, engage in prayer, eat breakfast with Jews, go swimming at a waterfront, do art projects, engage in sports or learning activities that explicitly incorporate Hebrew, Jewish texts, Jewish language, and Jewish values into the activity. In an Israel experience, we are surrounded by Hebrew as a living language, and to wish Shabbat Shalom to the bus driver, the bank teller, and the tech support person on the phone is part of the common discourse. The sign on the bus reminding young people to give up their seats to their elders quotes Leviticus 19:32, “You shall rise before the aged.” Such use of Hebrew doesn’t feel like in-your-face Bible thumping, it’s just street language.
In an immersive Jewish experience, in Israel or in a serious Jewish camp program, Jewish identity does not require an active effort … one can relax and simply be Jewish, letting the little bits of a Jewish life flow past as naturally as a scrap of wood sweeping down the Mississippi river.
Ahavas Israel is blessed with a generous scholarship program. We have the Berkowitz Fund and the Ahavas Israel scholarship fund for children, and the Shapiro fund for adults. Their intent is to fund educational camp and Israel program and (for adults) retreats and classes and seminars that provide an immersive Jewish experience. You can find information about the scholarship program elsewhere in the Voice as well as on the AhavasIsrael.org website. I urge you to consider how you might take advantage of it, for your children or for yourself.