Many people who do not know me and my personal history have asked me “where did all this come from? Where did it all begin?” The only answer to their questions is three letters with infinite meaning: TIF.
Milken, while doing a brilliant job at creating aware and active students that are active participants in the perpetuation of the State of Israel, has done (often blatently) a fantastic job at marketing their Tiferet Israel Fellowship program to every single 10th grader that graces Milken’s halls with their presence. Often times, as I’m sure many parents (as well as my own) will attest, Milken did too good a job at marketing the program to its students, so much so that for both my older brother Asher and I, Tiferet was a foregone conclusion; it was obvious that we would go. My parents put it extraordinarily well in saying that either they could allow Asher to leave for Israel for the better part of a semester and make him happy, or refuse to let him go and forever pit him against them. I remember the single condition they gave Asher before they signed the paperwork to join the program, “You can go on TIF if you promise not to join the Israeli army when you turn 18.” Those words set it motion the events that would transpire. Two sons and five years later, that promise could not have been broken more.
Whether or not my parents wanted it to or not, Tiferet has had a lasting impact on my life. It was the pivotal moment where Israel shifted from being the aloof location of my ancestral roots to being my spiritual homeland. In middle school, I reveled at the thought of being taught about Israel and about Tanakh; it seemed like the institution of Milken was shoving it down my peers and my throat, “why do I need to learn about that country? I’m not Israeli, I’ve never been there.” It was just another country, and eighth grade me wasn’t buying it. There was no way I was going to drink the Kool Aid. Mishnah was nothing more than a bunch of laws and scriptures complied by a bunch of close-minded scholars who were trying to impart hegemony over the population which they resided over. Hebrew was a dead language.
But then I went. The first time I visited Israel was for Asher’s induction ceremony into the Garin Tzabar program. I had just finished my first year of high school and I finally started getting the hang of the whole “Jewish” thing. Although I could not understand much of the Hebrew that my brother and the majority of the program spoke, I understood (albiet as an outsider) the sense of community that was present in this tiny state. Upon returning home, I began to miss Israel, miss those feelings of being “home” with that community and hearing that language that had until then been the vernacular of my Hebrew classes and nothing more.
But then I lived. I went on the Tiferet Israel Fellowship, not because I had some burning desire to foster a deep seeded connection to the Jewish State, but because it seemed like the best option I had. What 15 year old kid would give up the chance to live (away from his parents) in a wholly different country for the better part of a semester? And heck, it was almost free! School at Alexander Muss was, compared to Milken, a joke. Travelling with some of my best friends seemed like the perfect opportunity. What could be better? But while on TIF, something changed within me. At the start of the trip, I would laugh to myself and even openly ridicule my peers when they had those quintessential moments of Jewish epiphany. It seemed that all they were doing was laughing at the right moments and crying at the right moments. What follows is an excerpt from the journal I kept while on Tiferet:
“My first Shabbat in Jerusalem was not what I expected. There was a general hype that everybody would have some sort of spiritual revelation at the Kotel or at Orthodox Saturday Services. Both were nice, it was refreshing to dance with Israeli soldiers and Chasidic Jews and ‘connect to the ages of Judaism’, but it was not in any way significant to my spiritual identity. The whole experience was beautiful in itself, uplifting, and definitely wholly outside of what I am used to… Orthodox services in the bomb shelter was more a novelty experience than anything else, and if anything, it distanced me from those who came to this sanctuary to pray on a weekly basis.”
But something changed. What began as simply a fun trip where I could hang out with friends and go on exciting trips began to have significant meaning to me. Our second trip to Jerusalem ironically did have that intense ardor that I had imagined and knew to be the “proper” experience of Israel. After that time, I stopped criticizing my classmates for the experiences I thought they were having because I could not discern my peers’ sincerity from feigned emotional interest because I myself had experienced both.
“Atop Mt. Scopus, while singing ‘Yerushalayim Shel Tzahav’, I had my ‘cliché Jerusalem experience’… when we, the Milken Community High School in Israel, sang a song praising Jerusalem, amid the rain, snow, and hail, I, arguably for the first time in my life ‘felt God’. It is if the hail coincided with our song; God accepting our prayers. It was the first time I felt the community of Tiferet Israel Fellowship 2010. It was for me, my true spiritual welcoming to Israel. I was thoroughly frozen and I loved it. I felt God within me.”
Hod Hasharon quickly became my home, the Israelis my family, and Hebrew my language. Upon my return to Los Angeles and Milken, I was reinvigorated with Jewish Studies and Hebrew, I knew subconsciously and often overtly had become centerpieces l to my understanding of the world and shaped how I viewed it. Junior and Senior year became defined by my interest and love of these classes; they were the only remaining vestiges of my experiences in Israel. I felt that, although I had grown up in Southern California with two non-Israeli parents, a piece of me was missing during my time in California (and even in the United States as a whole). I knew I was going to go back.
When I tell people about Tiferet, I say that I lived in Israel rather than I studied there, because that was the true definition of my experience. I cannot determine for the 75 other students from Milken that went on the trip with me, but my experience was not necessarily defined by the book-learning commonplace to “studying” somewhere (even somewhere abroad) but rather by living. I attempted to speak Hebrew as much as I could and to interact with the society that bustled around me outside of the gates of my English-speaking international school. I cannot say that it is true for all of my peers because I know how easy it was to create a “Muss bubble”, but I did not merely study in Israel, I lived there.
I promised to myself and to my teachers and Madrichim (counselors) that I would return to Israel in one way or another. While I could not and did not promise anybody (even myself) that I would eventually join the IDF, I felt as though it was tacitly understood. The last words that I would write during my time in Israel were as follows:
“I, like all those who I asked about the topic of being a member of the Jewish National Homeland, challenge anybody who wants to find out what it means, just like I did, to come and see for his or herself. As I board the plane back to my life in Los Angeles, I do not just carry the thousand memories of a thousand moments with me. I do not just carry the souvenirs, the tangible artifacts of my trip, with me. I do not just carry an experience. I carry with my sliver of Israel: “Am, Medina, Torah v’Anshei Yisrael” (Nation, State, Teachings, and People of Israel) with me home. Just as I am taking my piece of Israel home, I will bring that piece back. I will bring Israel one step closer to being complete.”
“I never thought I would come out of my four-month experience a Zionist, having a desire to come and build the land as much as I do to be successful in life. Living in Israel has given me a new vantage point on life even. With the Rite of Return, I, Elon Zlotnik, have added on my own personal amendment; the ‘Obligation of Return’. Because I am enabled by Israel to come at any moment for any reason, to find safe haven within its borders, I also am obligated to do my civil duty to this land. It is my duty as a Jew, moreover as a member of “Am Yisrael” to do my duty, whether it is military service or civil service of another type. I always wondered what made Asher, my brother, move to Israel, on the account of a mere four-month program here. What I failed to realize is the importance of the program; learning what Israel is. Again, I never understood why so many people found such a profound connection to Israel, how a Los Angeles Jew could call Israel their “homeland”. Now I see, at the end of this program, I cannot describe what Israel means to me, besides that it is my homeland.”
Such strong words sound astoundingly rash coming from a 15 year old and I am the one who wrote them! But these words were echoed by most of my peers and best friends about their experience on Tiferet; my case was not the exception. All that I wish and all the I hope for is that anybody and everybody that has gone on TIF has kept these sentiments close to their hearts, has read and reread what they wrote during their time living in Israel, and has made the TIF experience part of how they view the world. I know that it is for me. When a 15 year old “you” challenges you to stay true to your word, there isn’t much you can do. With the fire and with passion that I had after Tiferet I return to Israel. I am bringing home that sliver that I have so long manifested inside of me.
There have been many other experiences in my life that have pushed me forward into making the decision to join the IDF, but Tiferet was my point of inception. I am advocating TIF in the sense that it did spark my love for Israel and my feelings of Zionism. I write about it to highlight that it was the turning point where i went from thinking Hebrew and Jewish studies and Israel had little meaning, impact, and relevance to my life to having major gravity and importance in my outlook on life. Tiferet certainly isn’t the reason why I am joining the Army, but it did play a role in shaping me into the person who made that decision.
No experience or decision rides simply on the back of a singular previous experience. It is the butterfly effect: “the flutter of a butterfly’s wings can create tsunamis on the otherside of the world”. Every step that you take leads you to be the person that you are. Many of my friends and classmates went on Tiferet and never batted an eye at the idea of moving to Israel, in fact most just had the incredible four months studying abroad that I originally described, and there is nothing wrong with that. For me, Tiferet was simply the first step I took in this direction of moving to Israel and joining the IDF, nothing more, nothing less.