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This Year in Jerusalem

This Year in Jerusalem

8 Reasons to Take Your Children to Israel

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I actually did it. I finished the laundry. Five days and twenty-two hours after returning from Israel with my family, I've managed to wash, dry, and fold every last sand-ridden bathing suit and falafel-stained t-shirt. And now I can reflect on our experience - a two-week, whirlwind journey through the Jewish homeland during which we celebrated my son's bar mitzvah.

I'm not going to make a Pollyannaish claim that taking four kids to the Middle East was a smooth, simple, and stress-free undertaking. It was incredibly trying at times and (thanks to the ever weakening dollar and our decision to travel over the peak season of Passover) prohibitively expensive. But it was also indescribably beautiful and perfectly life-changing.

Toward ensuring the eternal, bright future of the now sixty-year-old Jewish state, here are eight good reasons for Jewish parents to take their children to Israel.

My kids moved seamlessly into linguistic expert mode1. Hebrew, Hebrew, Everywhere! Studying Hebrew is at the core of the Judaic childhood. From Jewish preschool to day school to Hebrew school to bar/bat mitzvah tutoring, our kids spend much of their early years immersed in this ancient lexicon, yet they rarely have an opportunity to apply it outside the classroom or synagogue. In Israel, Hebrew is a living, breathing language. From the moment we arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport, my children's familiar moaning and groaning over Hebrew homework became a distant memory as they moved seamlessly into linguistic expert mode – translating menus for their grandparents, asking for directions, and ordering their weight in "glida" (i.e. ice cream) with confidence and pride.

2. Jewish Like Me. No matter where we live in the United States, no matter how Jewish our children's daily world may feel, the reality remains – Jews compose but 1% of the US population. While this truth can do wonders for building our kids' Jewish identity, it also serves as a daily reminder that they are fundamentally different from the vast majority of Americans. So my children sure were excited about being the same for once! Rather than dodging bread at every turn this Passover, we ate it (the kosher for Passover kind that is). Every supermarket we entered had its chametz quarantined; every restaurant we dined in had swapped out its ingredients in keeping with the holiday. (Although I remain dubious about those suspiciously chametz-like buns at the Burger Ranch.)

3. A Great Miracle Happened HERE. Every year at Chanukah, our children hear the story of the brave Maccabees who reclaimed the Temple from the Syrian-Greeks - and the day's worth of oil in the menorah that miraculously burned for eight. Nes Gadol Haya Sham, the Hebrew letters on our dreidels remind us, "A Great Miracle Happened There." But in Israel, the dreidels are different. The Hebrew letter shin, for "Sham," is replaced with a pey for "Po" meaning "here." As my kids stood wide-eyed and speechless at the foot of the steps to the ancient Temple in the new Jerusalem Archaeological Park - feeling the presence of the Macabbees from their Atlanta Braves hats to their Air Jordan sneakers - it was clear that they'd never spin their dreidels quite the same way again.

4. The Soldiers. The first time my family saw a gun-toting Israeli soldier we were admittedly taken aback. Not only was this eighteen-year-old girl carrying a gun, she was carrying a gigantic gun that was easily taller than my five-year old. But our initial discomfort was quickly replaced with a sense of security and awe at these young Israelis who — completely devoid of the self-centeredness and air of entitlement characterizing so many American teenagers — exuded wisdom and maturity beyond their years, tangible love for their country, and a personal responsibility for the greater good.

The bountiful Israeli breakfast at our hotel was piled high with fresh fruits and vegetables5. Back to Nature. A popular parenting book argues that kids are so plugged into television and video games that they've lost their connection to the natural world. In Israel, my children left behind all NDD (Nature Deficit Disorder) tendencies, as they witnessed a connection and respect for the land that they rarely have an opportunity to experience on our side of the planet. Our Israeli tour guide — a rugged, former tank commander — spoke endlessly about the beauty of the trees. The bountiful Israeli breakfast at our hotel was piled high with fresh fruits and vegetables without an artificial color or flavor in sight. Even the flowers seemed bigger, brighter and more fragrant than those we have at home. And the best part of it all is that my kids noticed.

6. L'Dor V'Dor. Many contemporary children are being raised to believe that the world revolves around them. And while being the center of the universe certainly has its perks, it can also put a little kid under a whole lot of pressure. The Jewish concept of l'dor v'dor - from generation to generation - is the antithesis to the dangerous "sun rises and sets for me" kiddie mentality. In other words, as my son stood before the Kotel, reading from the Torah in the footsteps of his parents, grandparents and hundreds of generations before, he received a priceless bar mitzvah gift: the stability, consistency and safety of knowing that he isn't the center of the universe after all, but a part of something far bigger and stronger than he could ever imagine.

7. Joy and Celebration. Perhaps the most striking aspects of Israel exist in its dichotomies: contemporary shopping malls amidst ancient relics, lush forests amongst parched deserts. And perhaps it is this understanding and acceptance of life's inherent fragility that has Israelis in a seeming constant state of celebration. Singing and dancing, picnicking and partying, living today to its fullest in the face of an uncertain tomorrow.

8. We got to stop at 7. It's always that eighth day of Passover that gets us. We can't look at another piece of matzah. We would give our right arm for a bona fide risen bagel. We are counting the seconds until we get to dive into that pizza at sundown. But in Israel, there is no eighth day of Passover, as the extra twenty-four hours are strictly reserved for the Diaspora. Which is why my kids insisted on making one last stop on Ben Yehuda Street before heading home, where they would fill their bellies, souls, and laundry bags with drippy, gooey, glorious Israeli falafel.

Sharon Duke Estroff is an internationally syndicated Jewish parenting columnist, award-winning Jewish educator and mother of four. Her Jewish parenting book, Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah (Broadway Books, 2007) is available everywhere books are sold.
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g May 11, 2008

Reasons to actually move there Great Piece! I might add though, many of us (my husband and I included) have given these reasons (and others) when explaining to our families why we felt we had to actually move there. Israel is where the future of our people, and although one can live a rich Jewish life anywhere, there is no comparison to the intensity of one's Judaism in our homeland. Reply

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