I arrived here yesterday after a long but uneventful flight, always struck by the marvels of modern technology that allow us to be moved so easily from one spot on the planet to another in a mere 11 or so hours. If one thinks back on Jewish history, and the chronicles of so many who made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land at one point or another...their journeys on ship (or even on foot) were measured in weeks, months, or years - never hours. It's unbelievable.
Tel Aviv as a municipality is intrinsically new. It was established by Zionist pioneers only a bit more than a 100 years ago. And yet, it is linked with the past by way of Jaffa, the ancient port (referenced in the Book of Jonah among other places) that now abuts Tel Aviv to the south.
I had the chance to go for a brief run yesterday afternoon before our program started, and I was struck by collapse of social boundaries that had been maintained (in Jerusalem, anyway, where I've spent the vast majority of my time) on prior trips here. For example: I saw multiple "mixed" Jewish couples walking together romantically - meaning, one partner religious and the other secular.
A totally different kind of conflating of boundaries: there's a giant Christmas tree in the middle of a traffic circle in Jaffa! The Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality has decided (in true progressive spirit) to publicly embrace Jaffa's interfaith character (there are significant Christian and Arab populations there) by acknowledging the Christmas season in this way.
Last night, our first program was an interaction with a program called Mechinah ("Preparation"). As you may know: virtually all Israeli teens serve in the Army here following high school graduation. Several years ago, the government began encouraging kids to pause and take a gap year (of "preparation") between the end of school and the beginning of the Army. Many of those young people simply do a year of community service. But the government has now certified 50+ official programs that young people can choose to participate in for a more structure experienced (that includes community service, but is not limited to that).
We visited the Mechinah program sponsored by IMPJ (Israel's Reform Movement). It is notable as one of the very few non-Orthodox programs in the entire country (for anything) that is explicitly sponsored/approved by the government! Young people spend the year studying and practicing Judaism (from a Reform perspective), becoming deeply engaged with the social justice scene in Jaffa (which has a unique set of needs), and reflecting on Jewish leadership - skills that the IMPJ hopes will simultaneously serve these young people well during their Army service and begin to build a cadre of future leaders for IMPJ synagogues down the line in the future. It was a remarkable and amazing investment in our youth. [The best part - this is a program that Americans with Hebrew background can also participate in! For more info, click here.]