(January 9, 2019 / JNS) The desert has bloomed much since the State of Israel was established on May 14, 1948; Beersheva is now a metropolis, the capital of the Jewish state now sits in a united Jerusalem, and there are peace treaties with former enemies Egypt and Jordan. Israelis still love oranges, but with a side of high-tech, and in 2017, Israel welcomed more tourists than ever, with an estimated 3.6 million people visiting the country.
Yet one constant in the history of modern Israel has been the presence of Murray Greenfield.
At age 91 and originally from Far Rockaway, N.Y., Greenfield set sail for the Promised Land and arrived during the final year of Aliya Bet, the period of mass immigration of Jews between 1934-1948, and played an active role in the development of the land and birth of Israeli society.
“I was brought up in a Jewish world in the United States, but I didn’t know the concept of Zionism,” said Greenfield. “When I came to Israel in 1947, I asked what do I get paid for helping to build the Jewish state, and they told me, you get nothing, just what you put into it. I heard there was an opportunity to do something and help build the Jewish people. I couldn’t even conceptualize the idea of Jewish state, but I always looked at what can I do for my people.”
Along the way, Greenfield has dedicated himself to the Jewish people through his commitment to Israel, for he believes that a Jewish homeland is vital to Jewish identity.
Whether that means a big “J” or a little “j,” as Greenfield explained, it has motivated him to activism.
‘A religion, a people, a culture and a land’
During the course of four decades, he has shown sincere passion and commitment to the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, now an essential part of Jewish National Fund’s Israel Continuum. He believes in the importance of an education that focuses on Israel, Judaism and the Jewish people, and he values the unique immersion experience offered through Muss.
“I’ve been going to AMHSI for over 50 years, and my greatest pleasure is to learn from where everyone’s places are,” said Greenfield. “We are from all over and practice our own traditions, but at the end of the day, we are all Jews. When these students come to Israel and take the initiative to be engaged, this is the future of the Jewish people. Be proud of a country where we stand up and stick it out. It is easy to run away, and I tell youth that if you run, it will catch up with you. Run towards it.”
Greenfield is confident that today’s youth are crucial to tomorrow’s future, and it’s for that reason he visits the campus several times a year to share his story and experiences with students. His “non-Zionist” approach is simple: Jewish identity is important, and being Jewish involves a religion, a people, a culture and a land.
According to AMHSI-JNF Co-CEO Rabbi Leor Sinai, Greenfield helps place things into perspective for students.
“His story is one that involves perseverance, triumph and struggle, and it provides students with a personal connection to someone who has been there from day one—who knows what the world looks like with Israel and remembers what it looked like without it,” said Sinai. “Murray encourages the students to ‘do something,’ wherever they are.”
According to a report by the AVI CHAI Foundation, Israel education “serves as the glue holding school communities together.” Furthermore, “the road towards engagement with Israel runs through students’ relationship to other Jewish collectives, wherever they are found.”
Greenfield believes that it is more important than ever to have a comprehensive program that allows participants to learn while seeing and experiencing both the land and the religion. Diaspora Jewry is changing, and so, too, is Jewish education. Despite there being more Jews in the United States than ever before, there are increasingly fewer synagogues, and Jews are becoming less active when it comes to honoring and sharing traditions.
“Be a part of the Jewish people, and don’t divorce yourself from the community. By absenting yourself from the Jewish community, you contribute to the problem,” said Greenfield.
He continued: “Help make a difference and listen to other ideas, regardless of religious or political opinions. I want everyone to listen to everybody else. If we listen, and take action, it’s much better than just talking about the aspects of Judaism that you don’t like. If you don’t participate in the discussion, you have no place to complain. Running away from Judaism has been the downfall of our people throughout history.”
‘Long-term program to strengthen Diaspora Jewry’
However, it’s not that parents don’t want to teach their children Judaism; they just don’t always have the means or they simply just don’t know how. But the Alexander Muss High School in Israel does, and its teachers, staff and other educators know how to do it. The students become inspired, form connections and strengthen their Jewish identities so that when they return home, they lead a more involved life, hopefully describing themselves with a big “J.”
“I was lucky. I was born at a time where I could participate in the most important venture for Jewish history in recent centuries,” said Greenfield. “I try to tell youth that everyone can be a part of this continuing history by trying. In today’s society, there is so much out there trying to isolate Israel, so how do you, as an individual, participate in changing this conversation.”
Since its founding, the Alexander Muss High School in Israel has played a substantial role in the betterment of the global Jewish community. According to Sinai, the impact is clear, both on a personal and communal level.
“The goal of this experiential, long-term Israel program is to strengthen Diaspora Jewry, and that is what we’re seeing, as is confirmed by its 28,000 alumni and their involvement in U.S. Jewish communities and across the globe,” he said.
Not only are students inspired by Greenfield, and his motto to “do something,” but the Jewish National Fund and AMHSI-JNF’s leadership are as well. In connection with JNF’s greater vision and that of David Ben-Gurion to make the desert bloom, the school recently announced its decision to build a campus in Beersheva within a larger International Zionist Village, as part of the organization’s “Blueprint Negev” initiative. The goal of this campaign is to further populate and develop the Negev Desert with 500,000 new residents, realizing one of Ben-Gurion’s Zionist dreams for the Jewish state.
“We’re in the business of dreaming,” said Sinai, and, “just like Murray, we are dreaming of doing.”