An ancient past, complicated present, and unknowable future came together during a local teen’s gap year in Israel.
Jacob Lichtblau, a member of The Jewish Center in Princeton and a rising freshman at Franklin and Marshall College, returned May 28 from the Young Judaea Year Course in Israel.
The program combined formal and informal learning, an optional two-month experience in the Israeli military, volunteering, and a gig at the Israel Museum focusing on archaeological finds.
Lichtblau said he especially appreciated the weekly trips to conflict areas like Sderot, Hebron, and east Jerusalem.
“We spoke with Palestinian people and far-right Jewish people,” he said, noting that in contrast to the tension in those hotspots, places in Israel proper and much of the West Bank — that is, before the recent conflict in Gaza — were “calm and modern” and “stable.”
In densely populated Hebron and east Jerusalem, he heard Arab perspectives on the vocal Jewish minorities who live there. “It only takes a few attacks on Palestinian groups or the other way around to create issues there,” he said. “I talked to very upset Palestinian men who had been beaten severely by soldiers; the cause was often murky.”
Lichtblau suggested that he came away from Israel with a more rounded view. “Some experiences would push me to the right, and some to the left,” he said.
He and the other pre-college teens on the program lived about four months in Bat Yam and the other four in Jerusalem. During the Bat Yam sojourn Lichtblau left to spend two months with the Israel Defense Forces, living on a base in the Negev and traveling around the country to different army bases. He spent a week in Jerusalem and one in the field, mainly in the south.
“To describe it, it sounds pretty miserable: waking at 5, in bed at 11, listening to a commander all day, an hour in line to get food, repetitive jogging and running drills, spending hours making line formations,” he said. But at the same time, he learned to appreciate the reasons behind the regimen. “The whole thing is designed to build obedience, order, and uniformity.”
“It models basic training,” he said. “It gave me a better appreciation of what soldiers go through, the stresses, what people who are 18 years old in Israel have to experience.”
One upside of the IDF experience was the opportunity to develop relationships with kids from other gap-year programs. “Everyone was going through the same experience, so you bonded with…kids from Mexico, Uruguay, Panama, Australia,” he said.
Lichtblau was particularly impressed with the IDF’s education unit, which does outreach in schools in poor neighborhoods and runs a base in the north for troubled kids to help integrate them into the army. The army, he noted, also does disaster relief in Israel and across the world.
“When you talk to soldiers and talk to officers, they have a sense that they are really trying to do the right thing,” he said. “It is not just an army that follows commands; there are rules where soldiers have more responsibility to think before they do things — if an order is blatantly wrong, there is a process where you can disobey your commander.
“The IDF is founded on trying to be as moral as possible.”
In Jerusalem, he took a Jewish culture/sociology class that went on weekly day trips to different Jewish communities, where the students tried ethnic foods and spoke to community members. “It’s a nice way to see how everything comes together in Israel, and they blend together,” Lichtblau said.
At the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Lichtblau — who said he may declare a history major — organized ancient coins from Israel, Gaza, and Judea-Samaria for an upcoming book. Using reference books, he sorted coins by city and type, and sequenced them as best he could. “It was definitely a tedious process but it was the best way to look at coins and learn about different varieties,” he said.
During the last four weeks, dubbed “special interest month,” students were able to choose a trip to see a Jewish community in another country, and Lichtblau chose Greece. “It was amazing to see what the Greek Jews went through and where they are at now,” he said.
Although he left Israel well before the outbreak of the current Gaza conflict, Lichtblau said the Israel advocacy course he took gave him the tools he needed to feel comfortable in dealing with the controversies stirred by Operation Protective Edge.
The course organizers, he said, “expect you to leave Israel with an understanding of what is going on and be able to explain to people a view that is more supportive of Israel.”
“A lot of American Jews…don’t have enough information to make a really informed decision, to have an opinion that can be validated by evidence, about the conflict,” he said. “Now that I have sufficient historical background, I can feel comfortable having a serious discussion with anyone on the spectrum and with any knowledge base.”