By: Tamara Yeshurun  | 

From Amsterdam to Jerusalem: The Straus Trip to Israel


That’s where I thought I would be for winter break. 

I was under the impression I was going to tour Amsterdam and learn about 17th-century Dutch Jewry with the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. Being a Straus Scholar — and hence a nerd by definition — I couldn’t wait for the trip. What could be better than visiting Europe in leisurely reflection of ages past? I felt that winter break couldn’t come quickly enough. At long last, the end of the fall semester saw our little group of scholars convene in JFK, board a flight and after many hours in the air, touch down far across the Atlantic.

But we had not traveled to Amsterdam. 

We were in Israel instead. 

In light of the Oct. 7 massacre, the Straus Center unblinkingly switched its itinerary. My fellow scholars and I instead found ourselves in Jerusalem, enveloped thoroughly in the present. For four consecutive days we sat in conversation with journalists, historians, rabbis, advocates, academics and educators, discussing some of the weightiest questions currently facing the Jewish people: 

What does Oct. 7 mean for the Zionist dream? If pogroms are still possible in an autonomous Jewish State, has it failed? Or has it proven that Jewish heroism has prevailed? 

Should Israel try to prove to the world that it is indeed the underdog, or is the ‘Oppression Olympics’ a ruinous game that ought to be abandoned? Is that goal even practical? 

What is the relationship between Jihadist antisemitism and progressive anti-Zionism? 

What does this war mean for Israel on the international stage? What does it mean for America and the U.S.-led liberal world order? 

What does our tradition have to say about military ethics? What are the competing moral considerations in this current conflict? What is the relationship between halakha and ethical values in general? 

These questions and many more swirled around us, far from the sound of artillery or the falling of shells. At first, the seminar room felt very removed from the raging reality of national events. Over the course of four days, however, our little corner of the Begin Heritage Center gained new dimensions. It expanded to contain the vast debates unfolding on the world stage, and deepened as we entrenched ourselves in visions of our national past and future. 

The speakers who addressed us, among whom appeared Natan Sharansky, Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon, Lahav Harkov, Dr. Russ Roberts, Gil Hoffman, Maayan Jaffe Hoffman, Dr. Gil Troy and Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Brody, are shining examples of people who have dedicated their lives to engaging with the challenges and opportunities facing the Jewish people and democracy in our day. With a profound appreciation for the giants on whose shoulders we stand, we were urged to consider the ways we ourselves might be able to improve the lives of our Jewish brothers and sisters. 

But we did not only distantly cogitate the implications of war. The reality of the war was all around us. There was something profound in breathing the air of Jerusalem, feeling the absence of tourists on its streets, seeing posters and graffiti with the names of hostages at every bus stop. When we arrived the hotel clerk gave us our room key and matter-of-factly informed us, “The bomb shelter is down that way.” The hotel teemed with hyper children, weary mothers, teenagers and elderly evacuees from Southern Israel, the staff maintaining a laudable composure amid the frenzy. We also helped volunteer for the war effort. Each day we did a different chessed activity, from packing trail mix packets for soldiers, to arranging Shabbat candy containers for families in need, to decorating cookies and making bracelets with evacuee children. 

Needless to say, the Straus Center trip was not what I thought it would be. 17th-century Dutch Jewry was not mentioned once, and I still haven’t been to Amsterdam. But I have never felt luckier. To be in Israel during its moment of crisis, to see the hardened faces of its mothers, to gape as a toddler glibly babbled to himself in Hebrew, “Where is Abba? Abba is not here.” — those are the things that grounded our abstractions. We animated the conference room with lived experience, bearing a solemn duty towards flesh-and-blood. After all, what is our study of our past worth if not to help us respond appropriately in the present?


Photo Caption: YU Straus Scholars pass by a home in Israel with a sign saying “Am Yisrael Chai”.

Photo Credit: Tamara Yeshurun