When Rabbi Leibel Fajnland of Fairfax’s Chabad Lubavitch of Northern Virginia speaks with people in his community about global affairs, he finds that there is one topic that seems to stand out from others in people’s minds: Israel.
"You speak to people who may have very strong positions one way or another [on Israel], and you speak to them for five minutes and you realize that they have no real concept of the issue," said Fajnland, while sitting in the Synagogue of the Chabada Lubovitch. "What’s tragic … is that for many people out there, they see Israel as the problem. They don’t just see it as a complex situation."
"We wanted to do something to hopefully have people who, when they are confronted with one of the positions, they have a way of addressing it."
It was for that express reason the Fajnland decided to begin offering "The Land and the Spirit," a six-week, 1 1/2-hour course exploring the "spiritual attachment" of the Jewish people and Israel. The course, which started on Nov. 6 and is offered to Jews and non-Jews alike, meets every Wednesday at the Chabad Lubavitch of Northern Virginia. Taught by Fajnland, it is typically offered for a nominal fee, with all people under 30 admitted free.
Israel "is the heart of the Jewish people, and we find that once people gain an understanding of what Israel means to us, their perspective changes," Fajnland said. "We wanted to find a way to describe what is different with respect to Israel, and found that this program helped us to do that."
THE PROGRAM, originally established by the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute of Brooklyn, N.Y., is an international movement to expose younger Jewish and non-Jewish people around the world to the "value and spirit" of Israel as the Jewish homeland, said program creator Rabbi Efraim Mintz, of the Rohr Center.
"It analyzes this deep connection that has continued to tug at us," said Mintz. "Even for those of us who don’t live there, we pray for Israel, we are interested in Israel and what is happening there."
Designed as a way of attracting more Jewish youth to the connection of the state of Israel and the Jewish faith, the course is offered worldwide, according to Mintz. It also seeks to address common questions about Jewish adherence to the land of Israel, such as its impact on the stability of the Middle East.
"Many people wonder why the Jewish people would want to settle in a place that can cause them so much suffering," Mintz said. "But the bond that exists between the Jewish people and Israel is a divine and sacred one … and we want to really identify this connection and what its unique significance is to us and its people."
TAKING THE course is important for Burke resident Bruce Kaplan, an aerospace engineer. The Land and the Spirit is just one of many informational Jewish exploratory programs that Kaplan has attended at Chabad Lubavitch of Northern Virginia.
"With the way of the world these days and politics … I think it is important to understand what the attachment to this land is about," said Kaplan, himself a Jew. "There was a reason that the Jewish people were put there alongside everyone else."
That reason, as Kaplan explained it, dealt with the passing on of his ancestors’ traditional values and spreading word of the "Jewish mission" from a central location of the world.
Understanding the fully complicated and intricate nature of the history and culture of Israel has been one of the most rewarding parts to the course for Fairfax Station Jewish resident Susan Rosenbloom, a retired teacher.
"There are so many layers in the depth of understanding of the issue of Israel," she said, adding that she has visited Israel four times. "This program helps me to see its legacy through the original sources of the Torah and appreciate what I see more when I am within its boundaries."
AND WHILE the course tends to focus on the Jewish connection to Israel, it does touch on the controversial aspects, such as terrorism and geopolitical insecurity, but stops short of entering the debate between Israelis and their Palestinian neighbors, Fajnland said.
"Instead of arguing what is obviously a very polarizing debate, we decided to focus on … what the actual land means to the people of Israel," he said. "History always plays into this, and we speak a lot about the historical aspect as well."
When students can understand the background of the Jewish claim to Israel through the eyes of an experienced practitioner and Jewish scholar, there is an immediate benefit for the community, according to Fajnland.
"It’s the heart of the Jewish people," he said. "And we find that once people gain an understanding of what Israel truly means to us, their perspective changes."