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What The Conservative Movement Didn’t Teach Me

September 15, 2017

By Dr. Hilary Lustick

AS AN EDUCATOR and researcher of adolescent learning, I can tell you that teenagers learn best when they feel good. It’s why Birthright, the United Synagogue Youth movement, and so many other organizations bring Jewish American young people to Israel at little to no cost. The hope is that if you can make kids feel good in Israel, they’ll remember only that feeling, and they’ll want to invest -- first with their money, then, through aliya, with their lives. This provides little opportunity for the critical reflection to understand the politics of the occupation and the ways the American Jewish community supports it.

Expensive and problematic trips to Israel cannot replace the value of real engagement and struggle. As an alum of United Synagogue Youth, and an educator of Jewish and secular students of all ages, I am confident that the two most powerful things we can provide for today’s Jewish youth are: a) the language to discuss the occupation and settler colonialism, and b) the opportunity to grapple, independently and in community, with what it means to be an engaged Jew in response to the occupation.

At 6:30 am, in late July of 2017, I am at an airport gate in Austin, Texas, en route to attend the National Havurah Institute. Next to my carry-on was a burlap bag from Steve’s Packs Jerusalem. It’s the perfect size, shape, and material: light enough to sling over your shoulder, but large enough to carry anything from snacks and a water bottle to a book and a wallet.

I’ve had this bag since 1999: the summer I was sixteen and went to Israel on a United Synagogue Youth (USY) program called the Italy/Israel Pilgrimage. I have fond associations with this purchase from the Steve’s Pack Store on Ben Yehuda Street. I’m not fond of how prominently displayed its label is, because at this point in my life I don’t go out of my way to advertise financial support to Israel. On the other hand, I enjoy having to reacquaint myself with that tension whenever I put it on: the tension between my dread for the occupation and my love for the glow of the setting sun over Jerusalem stone. The core of my Jewish identity is that exact tension, and toting a Steve’s Pack with me, I feel ready for whatever complexities, discomfort and wonder my current adventures have in store.

IN 1999, USY offered several summer trips for teens, all of which were called “pilgrimages.” One was a six-week trip to Israel. The trip I chose, “Heritage and Hope,” spent a week in Italy and five weeks in Israel. The intention, explicitly put, behind each of these trips was to foster an appreciation for where Jews came from, as well as recreate (very literally) what it was like to travel to Israel from those origins.

In Rome, we learned about a population of Jewish Italians who had lived there and fled to Palestine around World War II, which our tour guides explicitly compared to Exodus. To simulate this “exodus,” we boarded a Russian steam-liner staffed by actors following a script designed to give us some idea of what our Italian ancestors had experienced. Each day of our four-day journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Haifa, when we weren’t being barked at by the waitstaff, we were being regaled by various academics and American Jewish advocates with stories about the land to which we were “emigrating.” We were split into debate teams, tasked with “convincing” each other whether it would be more exciting to help build the modern cosmopolitan city of Tel Aviv, or help settle the Negev Desert. We celebrated Shabbat by dancing with three other teen tour groups, 100 teenagers doing conga lines and singing z’mirot (joyful Sabbath songs) across the decks.

A stocky man, posing as the captain of the ship, would occasionally interrupt our programming with gruff updates about the political situation abroad. On the final day of our journey, he suddenly appeared, yelling agitatedly. We were being “attacked”! Loud helicopter noises were blasted above our heads to simulate fighter jets, and we were showered with pamphlets and confetti. I don’t remember who was supposed to be attacking us, or why. I just remember the way it made me feel: anxious to reach land, to reach safety, to reach Israel.

The trip in Israel sought to deliver on this promise of salvation. That apparently meant visiting the major religious sites, learning Israeli military history from a rather one-sided perspective and being inundated in a dizzying number of options for continuing my engagement. I could spend a year studying in university, I could do a gap year, I could live on a kibbutz with an Israeli family, I could become a citizen and serve in the army. Israel was touted as an answer to all of life’s uncertainty. The point of the trip was clear; we were to fall in love with Israel and move there.

A few conspicuous things were missing, however. We did not hear from any Palestinians, not even when we were dropped off to wander for an hour or so in a poor Palestinian village near the Golan Heights. We left that village knowing nothing more about Palestinians than the poverty and tense silence we had experienced as we walked the streets. It was more comfortable to forget we’d been there. My friends walked through the streets in our own little world -- singing Disney songs, I think -- and barely discussed what we had seen.

Back home, I was used to critical debate about Zionism. Here, that was not available to us. From the moment the program began, I could not stop laughing at the clear psychological agenda, the one-way emotional roller coaster to emigration. My snarky mutterings magnetized a small group of intelligent young women, beyond the friends I’d come with. Jokes were, for me, a safe way to resist what I knew, on some level, was a concerted attempt by the Conservative Movement to indoctrinate us into the belief that Israel was a land promised to us, as Jews, uncomplicated by politics or the needs and rights of any other people. Jokes were one way that I guarded myself from information I knew was meant to manipulate me. And they were the first signs of a gulf that has grown between me and the uncritically pro-Israel Jewish community ever since.

I have warm memories of the ways my Jewish community supported me as a child and a young adult. Everything I received from the Conservative Movement, down to the beautiful Tanakh (collection of Jewish texts) I received at my bat mitzvah and the mini-siddur (prayerbook) I received on pilgrimage, are items I still use and cherish. Yet, I wonder what it would have been like to feel accepted and supported by my Jewish community without having to hide my questions about Israel. Our identity as a people, whether we accept it or not, is inextricable from how Palestinians are treated in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. And as Americans, we’re accountable for how Muslims are treated across the world in our never-ending “war on terror.” The earlier we can help young Jews identify and explore the complexities of our struggle, the more comfortable they will be with its tensions and with designing a solution, and the more honestly committed they can be to our community. I don’t carry that Steve’s Pack because I got it in Jerusalem. I carry it because it’s flexible and will hold whatever I’ve got with me.

Dr. Hilary Lustick is an Assistant Professor of Educational and Community Leadership at Texas State University. She is a member of IfNotNow Austin.