by Isabelle Mokotoff
This is the first in a series of columns by Junior Isabelle Mokotoff, This week, she reflects on life lessons learned from a summer experience.
For as long as I can remember, my “Jewishness” has occupied a substantial section of my personal identity. Judaism does not solely pertain to its theological aspects, but rather extends to its culture, people, and history. Since a young age, I have had frequent exposure to the Jewish community, specifically its Reform sect, attending two preschools, one synagogue, two summer camps, one day school, and one youth group. As a result of my continuous involvement, a year ago, I truly believed that I viewed the world with a Jewish perspective.
Until this summer, I held steadfast to my belief in Zionism, the idea that Jews have the right to establish and maintain the state of Israel as their homeland. For millennia, Jews have been persecuted, subjected to pogroms and genocides, forcibly removed from their communities and regarded as second class citizens. The Jewish people saw the Holocaust as the last straw; after suffering through the seemingly eternal animosity, they deserved a home that they loved and to which they felt an intimate connection. After much thought, the Jewish people came to the conclusion that the only place which truly fit these qualifications was Israel. Throughout the entirety of Jewish history, this tiny 8,019 square mile piece of land has held remarkable significance to our people.
In the Biblical Torah, G-d promises the land to Abraham and his descendants. At the end of services, during two of the most sacred Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur and Passover, the phrase “next year in Jerusalem” is recited. The Israeli national anthem revolves around the concept of diaspora Jews returning to the land over which they lay divine claim embodies in their national anthem: “Our hope is not yet lost, it is two thousand years old, to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.” We memorize the timeline of our independence: the 1917 Balfour Declaration that established the national home of the Jewish people in Palestine, the proposition of the 1947 UN Partition Plan in which the two state solution supported the existence of both a Palestinian and a Jewish country, and, subsequently, the Israeli acceptance and Palestinian rejection of the plan. The unforeseen 1948 Jewish victory over Arab forces, officially birth of the Israeli nation. These ideas and events were ingrained in me since birth, woven into the very fabric of my being. To me, it seemed like a no-brainer that Israel should belong to the Jewish people. This topic causes major controversy on a global scale, and yet, having barely skimmed the surface of the complexities pertaining to the modern-day establishment of Israel, I was fully confident in my knowledge and opinions about the issue. Little did I know at the start of the summer that I was about to be shaken to my core, turning my beliefs that I held so dear on their head.
“You are officially registered for Kallah 2018.” One simple message sent to me in one simple confirmation email, prompted by one simple click of a button, a seemingly insignificant occurrence. On the contrary, this program was not inconsequential to the pathway of my life, but rather I view it as having one of the most profound impacts on my mental, religious, and political growth as a person. I signed up for Kallah, a three week program over the summer in which Jewish educators of different backgrounds taught participants about a wide spectrum of topics, not because I wanted to explore my Jewish identity, but rather because my friends were doing it. My education during this program was an afterthought; I was convinced that my standpoint on major issues facing the Jewish world would remain largely intact. After all, I had received over a decade’s worth of Jewish schooling. What information could I learn that would change my mind? Looking back on the situation with one more year of wisdom, I can say with full conviction that the education I received at Kallah not only made me a better Jew, but a better person.
The problem with the education I had previously received was not its quantity, but its quality. I loved attending day school and in many ways I benefited from the education that I received there; however, I had never been told to challenge my beliefs, to attempt to view the world from the perspective of another. At Kallah, I encountered experiences that were unprecedented in my exposure to a cosmopolitan world perspective. I enrolled in Israel: Will It Survive?, This class asked me to point out the flaws of the Israeli government instead of blindly agreeing with every decision it makes. I attended a prayer service in which a mechitza (a barrier) separated the room into a female and male side. I walked into the service resenting the oppressive, seemingly backwards nature of Orthodox Judaism and walked out realizing the mechitza was not an isolator used by men to degrade women, but rather, a tool for women to heighten themselves as individuals by truly allowing them to focus on their inner thoughts.
I also listened to Mohammed Dajani Daoudi, a Palestinian professor and peace activist, from the University of, Al-Quds in Jerusalem, speak to us about the Palestinian perspective about the Israeli occupation, enlightening me about the 1.5 million Palestinians displaced into refugee camps. I debated with a former Israeli Parliament member about the validity of the Two-State solution, which is still being discussed by national leaders today. I soaked in all of the knowledge in Thinking Jewish Thoughts, learning how to apply pluralistic Jewish values in my day-to-day life.
I still consider myself a Zionist and a Jew; however, I now consider myself someone who educates herself about a topic before forming an opinion. Today, I truly believe that I view the world with a fuller Jewish perspective than I did a year ago. I use the knowledge I gained at Kallah to guide me through life, creating my own pathways. It taught me that going into the world blindly is a dangerous thing, and to truly be safe and well-equipped to handle all that life throws at you, one needs to be supported with an open-minded attitude and a solid education .
The education I received at Kallah is my motivation to write this column, which in turn gives me a platform through which I can educate my peers and enrich their lives through knowledge.