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Student explores ‘dual’ identities on Israel trip
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Student explores ‘dual’ identities on Israel trip

Orthodox undergrad spends week studying ‘hot-button’ issues

Mordechai Tiefenbrunn of Edison visits Tel Shilo during Yeshiva University’s A Place Called Home program in Israel.
Mordechai Tiefenbrunn of Edison visits Tel Shilo during Yeshiva University’s A Place Called Home program in Israel.

Mordechai Tiefenbrunn of Edison joined 40 students from across North America on a weeklong trip to Israel designed to explore their dual identities as Orthodox Zionists and Americans. They were in Israel from Jan. 9 to 16.

Organized by the Yeshiva University Center for the Jewish Future, the trip — called “A Place Called Home” — was meant to explore what organizers call the “complexities of a dual homeland.”

The participants met with a range of Israelis with divergent backgrounds, religious beliefs, and political perspectives. They met with people on kibbutzim, in development towns, in immigrant villages, in towns in Judea and Samaria, and in religious and secular communities.

“These compelling experiences forced the students to examine their shared existential dilemma of loyalty to both a birthplace and a homeland,” Rabbi Kenneth Brander, the David Mitzner Dean of the Center for the Jewish Future, told NJ Jewish News. “I believe that these types of experiential programs empower our students to passionately recommit to living purposeful Jewish lives.”

Run with support from the Jim Joseph Foundation, the trip focuses on what the planners described in a statement as “hot-button issues” — like the price of unity, how ideologies shape and divide people, and how to balance Jewish values with humanism and democracy. Ultimately it explored the costs and benefits of establishing a life in Israel versus the Diaspora.

Run with support from the Jim Joseph Foundation, the trip focuses on what the planners described in a statement as “hot-button issues”— like the price of unity, how ideologies shape and divide people, and how to balance Jewish values with humanism and democracy. Ultimately, it explored the costs and benefits of establishing a life in Israel versus the Diaspora.

Tiefenbrunn, 20, has taken a leave of absence from YU, where he was majoring in psychology, to continue Torah studies in Israel.

In response to e-mailed questions from NJ Jewish News, he confessed that when he first heard about the YU trip, he thought of it as a cheaper way to get to Israel for a winter vacation. “But as time went on,” he wrote after his return, “as the group met more and more, and during the course of the trip itself, the whole thing developed into so much more, and I really enjoyed and gained from it.”

He had been to Israel a number of times before. He spent the 2008-09 school year studying in Yeshivat Sha’alvim near Jerusalem, and had been on summer programs and family trips. The YU program didn’t change his opinions about the issues they explored but, he said, “I now feel more educated about them and I feel like I understand both sides better.”

“For example, the day that we learned about the foreign worker issue, we met with Knesset Member Yaakov Katz, who is essentially in charge of the issue,” said Tiefenbrunn. Katz “maintains that foreign workers should be disallowed from entering the country freely, and I felt like I related to that ideal more, in order to maintain the ‘Jewishness’ of the state.

“However, later on the same day we saw the community where many foreigners ‘live,’ and we even met with a man who fled to Israel and is working here illegally, and while in my head I knew that it was wrong for him to be here, in my heart I felt sympathetic to his situation and understood the hardships he has faced which compelled him to want to leave his home and come here.”

Activities on the first two days focused on Gush Katif, the Gaza community Israeli settlers were forced to evacuate in 2005. At the museum in Nachlaot dedicated to Gush Katif, the students were shown a video shot during the disengagement, showing soldiers pulling people from their homes.

In Nitzan, a religious kibbutz in southern Israel on which many of the Gaza evacuees were resettled, the students helped local teens paint their club house with a mural commemorating Gush Katif.

Tiefenbrunn said he was very impressed by those two days. “It really connected me to the terrible pain of both sides, from the evacuees’ perspectives, as well as the soldiers,” he wrote. “It was really comforting though, at the end of the second day, when we actually got a chance to hang out with and engage regular kids from Gush Katif, who had been kicked out of their homes at a young age…to see that things could be rebuilt and life can still go on, even when forced out of your home under such difficult circumstances.”

Brander said that the “informal interactions between the YU students and the local teens was so impactful that 15 of the YU students who extended their trip returned to Nitzan the next week to continue painting.”

On the Friday night of the trip, the YU group shared a Shabbat meal with a Birthright contingent, experiencing their first Shabbat in Israel. There was dancing and discussion and — according to the participants — an inspiring sharing of the excitement about being in the country.

The YU group was led by Rabbi Yaakov Neuberger, a rosh yeshiva at YU’s Yeshiva Program/Mazer School of Talmudic Studies and the rabbi of Congregation Beth Abraham in Bergenfield. He was accompanied by Shuki Taylor, director of the university’s service learning and experiential programs, and Kiva Rabinsky, a yeshiva teacher and camp director from Atlanta who helped develop the program.

Brander said the students on the trip “recognize that we all need to make sacrifices to empower our destiny as a people, that community is a haven and a heaven for all of us.” He said each student was analyzing what their own role needed to be and “how they are going to contribute to the colors of the tapestry known as the Jewish people.”

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