“Rabbi, I’m really sorry, I want to come to your house for Shabbat but my school won’t let me go over the green line. I’m really upset, I’ve looked forward to going to your house all year!” If only I had a dollar for all the times I’ve heard my students studying in their year in Israel, tell me they couldn’t come for Shabbat because we live in a settlement and their school administration doesn’t understand that most settlements are safer than the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City (which are very safe themselves). Thankfully, it is the minority of schools and students who won’t cross the green line out of fear, and a tiny minority out of conviction.
There are over 12,000 American students who come to Israel to study and experience Israel. Some travel to Israel for a month, some for half a year, others for a gap year, and some for five or more years. The time these students spend in Israel is valuable for their development; they learn life skills; many grow religiously; and some for the first time become their own people, learning to live independently of their parents.
Most of these students don’t limit their year to the classroom and dormitory. They travel throughout Israel. On these excursions, they learn about the land, see important places and get to know the Israeli people. Many learn spoken Hebrew for the very first time. A growing number of these students fall in love with Eretz Yisrael and choose to stay in Israel, making aliyah and serving in the army or national service.
The phenomenon of “flipping out” generally takes place during a student’s year in a yeshiva or seminary in Israel. Students are given the first opportunity to study Torah and religion unencumbered by academic pressures. Students study subjects that interest them and are given the intellectual liberty to explore areas that challenge their blind faith in Torah. For many students, their time in Israel becomes the time they learn to think for themselves and recognize the inherent logic of Judaism.
One of the most influential parts of a student’s time in Israel is their time outside the classroom with Israeli families. Whether their hosts are Sabras born in Israel or immigrants, Israelis demonstrate what the living, breathing Israel is all about. Thousands of these students are single, and enjoy going to people’s homes around Israel for Shabbat. When the students arrive in August at the start of the academic year, they usually go to a relative or to one of their teacher’s houses. They imagine the wonderful experiences they’ll have as the year progresses and they travel to more “exotic” places around Israel and taste Israel’s rich diversity.
Among the places that qualify as “exotic” are Jewish towns over the green line that demarcates the State of Israel from Judea and Samaria. Often called settlements, these small towns house some of the most committed and dedicated Zionists in Israel. The towns themselves are situated on top of beautiful mountains that afford stunning views of miles of Eretz Yisrael. Spending a Shabbat with the residents of these towns – “settlers” – is usually an unforgettable experience. Students who visit quickly realize that Jews have moved to these towns more for the beauty, affordability and quaint small-town feeling than for ideological reasons, but their hosts believe in the ideology that Jews should be able to live anywhere they want, and especially in Eretz Yisrael.
Meanwhile, each weekend, students find themselves making plans for the more familiar and comfortable setting of a family member or teacher. One Shabbat, they promise themselves, they’ll go to an exotic place and really experience Israel – but not this Shabbat. Before they know it the year in Israel is almost over. It’s May and their program ends in four or five weeks. But they haven’t had their experience yet! They’ve spent the entire year sticking to the familiar Ranaana, Beit Shemesh, Modi’in or their friend’s parents’ apartment in Rechavia. As May hits, yishuvim are inundated with American students coming to visit their towns. The residents love hosting these students and showing these students that “settlements” aren’t the scary places their “intifada-thinking” parents and teachers have told them about.
All too often, American Jews simply believe the lies they’re told about settlements; it’s a rare American that comes to see life for themselves. When the students come, they see the settlements are beautiful, safe, and full of dedicated Israelis just living their lives. I’m grateful these students have taken the time to see past the headlines and anti-settlement rhetoric and come to see for themselves what a settlement looks like in real life.