Responding to Kaplan: The Israel Experience

Joseph Reimer

In my recent book, Making Shabbat, I tell the story of the Schoolmans, founders of Cejwin Camp. There were Jewish camps before Cejwin, but the Schoolmans created the first intentional Jewish camp: a space for campers and staff to actively engage their Judaism. The Schoolmans were disciples of Mordechai Kaplan. Intentional Jewish camping was their programmatic embodiment of ideas found in Judaism as a Civilization.

“The Israel experience” was an outgrowth of Jewish summer camps. When educators asked what Jewish experiences they could not offer at camp, one answer was an encounter with a Jewish homeland. By the 1960’s camps began offering a summer experience in Israel. Was this Kaplan’s enduring influence? By all means. The Israel experience was an encounter with the culture and history of Israel, not a tour of synagogues and religious monuments. It was designed to take in the many-faceted aspects of Israel and make sense of them as American Jews.

The Israel experience expanded with Birthright Israel which enabled a more diverse set of Jewish youth to experience Israel. Yet, BRI remained an encounter with Israel as an evolving Jewish cultural entity. Sadly, October 7th put an end to Birthright Israel trips for 2023. American youth cannot encounter Israel when the country is at war and suffering from a vicious attack. But a broader question is: Will liberal American Jews continue to send their children on the Israel experience? Will it remain a viable option?

Kaplan taught us to view Israel as more than a singular reality. Yehuda Amichai and Israeli films are as essential to our relationship as is the Western Wall. Israeli democracy is as dear to us as are the hostages being held by Hamas. But will the Israeli culture we love endure past October 7th?  Will Kaplan’s vision of a progressive Jewish civilization continue to exist in the State of Israel? In all honesty, we do not know.

Kaplan was a prophet of the possible. Surely much is yet possible and we need to actively assert our values and beliefs. Yet we also need to soberly assess the dangers that lurk and think hard about a changing world in which we face challenges that we have not previously encountered.