A Zionism for the 21st century-Where Does Torah High Stand?

A Zionism for the 21st century-Where Does Torah High Stand?

By Miriam Perl

It’s not easy reaching young people these days—especially when it comes to instilling an attachment to the State of Israel. 

The old model of Zionism no longer holds caché among so many young people. This situation is exacerbated by the barrage of criticism and misinformation that is disseminated regularly about Israel in the mainstream press.

Can an idea deemed the “new Zionism” be the answer? 

 Where does Torah High stand on this issue? Are these ideas something that Torah High can get behind? 

It appears that traditional Zionism—whether we speak about the religious model (based on God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants will inherit the land) or the political one (based on reclaiming our independence that we once enjoyed under the monarchy of King David)— is losing its force to instill a passion for Israel, particularly among young people. This disaffection for Israel seems to be especially pronounced among teens and young adults, who fail to demonstrate the Zionist fervor that the pioneers and earlier generations showed.

Organizations such as NCSY Canada and Torah High, whose raison d’etre is to ignite passion for both Jewish identity and Israel among teens, are faced with a decidedly modern challenge.

Is it time to redefine Zionism for the 21st century in order to reach our young people? In a recent article in the Jerusalem Post,  its authors, Iris Berman, Hyatt Aronoff, Yahel Halevi, Roni Zak, and Ayelet Kalfus, present their description of a “new Zionism” that focuses on the unity of the Jewish people.

This is an idea that seeks to bring people together who occupy categories that usually divide us—including orthodox, conservative, reform, or some other designation. It rises above our many ethnic backgrounds, languages, and customs. This new Zionism is one that embraces all Jews—in all our wonderful disparity and multitude of beliefs and practices. In the authors words, “Modern Zionism should be the yearning for a strong sense of peoplehood among the Jewish nation, rooted in the centrality of Eretz Israel.”

The last words “…rooted in the centrality of Israel” are significant. This new Zionism is one that embraces the multiplicity of our people…. in the land of Israel

Why the necessity for Israel? 

Because Israel serves as the anchor that has the power to unite us. Like a root that anchors a tree with branches spreading in every direction, Israel is the common denominator, our collective claim to a shared history.  As a people who have become so fragmented—and so scattered across the world–it is especially important that Israel is there to bring us together.

A Hybrid Model At Heart

So it appears that this so called “new Zionism” is really a hybrid—highlighting the importance of coming together as a people, while not forsaking the importance of the land.

In reaching out to young Jewish teens across Canada, Torah High and NCSY Canada have managed to spark the passion for both Jewish identity and Israel— ideas that are inextricably linked. Torah High’s teachers and NCSY Canada’s youth leaders successfully instill a love for Judaism and Israel among our teen demographic because we show them that they all belong under the wide tent of the Jewish people—without forsaking the traditional narrative from which it springs.

As a school that has its feet both in history and modernity, Torah High serves as beautiful example of co-existence. While the school’s teachers practice Judaism across the spectrum of religious observance, they reach the students on their own terms. Our teachers allow the students to incorporate the aspects of our heritage and tradition that speak to them personally so that they can fashion a strong Jewish identity that reflects their own journey and understanding.  At the same time, the students’ close relationship with their teachers allow them to dispel any narrow views about of what it means to be “religious.”

Judaism and Jewish life is not presented as a wholesale cannon that students are persuaded to adopt.  Rather, they are exposed to the beauty of the Hebrew language, the universality of Jewish values, and the spiritual foundations inherent in its practices. The students embrace the old and new idea that we are all created in the image of God, and that all people are therefore deserving of our acceptance and love. Torah High students learn that Jewish values stem from a divine imperative, one that seeks ultimately to spread goodness in the world.  Whether travelling to Israel on the March of the Living, studying Jewish poetry, or comparing Eli Weisel’s “Night” with Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” in English class, students learn about Jewish identity that personal and reflective of our modern times.

Students at Torah High have experienced their connection to other Jews most powerfully when they are in Israel. When they travel to Israel on TJJ (the Jerusalem Journey, NCSY Canada’s flagship Israel summer trip), or on the March of the Living (after taking the March of the Living course at Torah High), teens discover that there is a shared history in the land that unites us.

One student had this to say upon her return from Israel on TJJ:

When I finally arrived in Israel, I felt a sense of relief breathing hot Israeli air and being surrounded by fellow Jews. I was united with my new family, and I already started making friends. Since day one of my TJJ experience, I have been challenged spiritually and physically. I never would have thought that I would have learnt so much being a Jew.

The challenge to light the fire of Zionism in our young people is real, but it can be done!