The historical, cultural and religious roots of Jews are as the "children of Israel" who lived in the Land of Israel (the word "Jew" comes from the word "Judea:" the largest of the tribes of Israel in Biblical times). Everything that is at the core of the early history of the Jews is linked to Israel. The Bible and its early heroes (patriarchs and matriarchs, Moses, David and Solomon) are rooted in the Land of Israel. The great prophetic ideas such as justice, equality and peace, which have shaped world history, were formulated in the Land of Israel. The roots of the Jews as a historical people are in the soil of Israel and our culture teaches us of the yearning to return to that land when we were exiled from it.
The Pillars of Judaism
Israel was turned into one of the key pillars of Judaism - along with the God of Israel, the Torah of Israel and the People of Israel. With a few exceptions, Israel was not seen as a replacement for Judaism but rather as an integral part of it. The Jewish religion made Israel a religious idea and collective vision and turned it into one of the cornerstones of Jewish religious civilization.
Jewish Pride and Renewal
In modern times Israel has become a remarkable statement about the ability of the Jewish people to renew itself after the nightmare of the Holocaust. Israel made Jews proud because it saved the lives of Jews, renewed Jewish cultural creativity and study and spoke in the name of Jewish values. Israel became a daily reminder that Judaism as a religion is alive and well and that Jewish nationalism and culture are equally important in the definition of the "New Jew." Israel represents the ideological revolution in which Jews became the "subjects" of history rather than the "objects." Jewish national pride has been inspired by the actions of farmers and soldiers, high-tech wizards and social reformers, who have labored to create a just and healthier society.
You may notice that Shabbat (Friday sundown until Saturday sundown) is a real day of rest in most of Israel, shops will close and mass transportation is unavailable…but Sunday is a full working day!
Nearly everyone you meet on your trip to Israel will be Jewish, including the bus driver, tour guides, waiters, soldiers, medics and young adults...all the night clubs are ‘Jewish singles scenes!’
The Old and the New
Modern Israel is striking proof that a very old religion can survive in a very modern world. Israel is the Western Wall of old - and art galleries and coffee houses of today. It is the holiness of Shabbat in Jerusalem - and the beat of Saturday night in Tel Aviv. It is archeology of the past - and high tech and business of the future. Israel shows that Judaism can be old and new at the same time.
The Israeli People
Israelis are a complicated people from diverse backgrounds with conflicting views about their personal, religious, and political identities and ideologies. Your trip will provide you with an opportunity – both formally and informally – to meet Israelis and interact with them. Israel, like most of the Middle East, is a rare cultural hybrid, caught halfway between East and West. You can sit in a super-mod, Yuppie-filled café and hear Middle Eastern music; you can easily find a kosher Burger King right next door to a falafel stand. In Israel, this kind of cultural mix-n-match is just part of daily life.
The Israeli character has been shaped by a unique set of ideas, events, and influences. From the Middle Eastern climate to the Arab-Israeli conflict, from agriculture to the military, from the emotional legacy of the Holocaust to the rise of post-Zionism, there are both contextual and internal forces that make Israelis who they are.
The image of the “Sabra,” or native-born Israeli – a cactus fruit that’s prickly on the outside and sweet on the inside – has evolved a great deal since the early days of statehood. Still, much of that tough-yet-sensitive character remains today.
Israelis aree something of a hybrid as well; Jews and non-Jews; Western and Eastern origins; old and new immigrants; secular lifestyles and varying degrees of religious observance; urban and rural existence; a high-tech economy and ancient traditions. In a country just over 60 years old, the definition of “Israeli culture” is still up for discussion.
In Israel, most of the population defines itself as “secular” and the great majority of people do not observe strict religious rituals, although several Jewish traditions and holidays are observed. Across the spectrum of religious observance in Israel are: religious or strictly observant Jews (what North Americans call Orthodox); Masorti Jews (the Conservative movement in Israel); and the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (the Reform movement in Israel). Most Israelis observe basic Jewish practices, including Passover Seder, fasting on Yom Kippur, Bar/Bat Mitzvah and the celebration of Chanukah.
Unlike in the United States and Canada, where Reform and Conservative Jews are a majority, non-Orthodox movements are a minority in Israel. Israel’s all-Orthodox, government-sponsored Rabbinate presides over all official life cycle rituals in Israel (circumcision, marriage, divorce, burial) as well as all conversions.
A small but growing Jewish “renaissance” is taking place in Israel as secular and religious Jews search for non-Orthodox alternatives to study and worship.
Israel is a parliamentary democracy with legislative, executive, and judicial branches. The duties of the President are mostly ceremonial. The Knesset, Israel's legislative body, is a 120-member unicameral parliament whose members are elected every four years in universal, nationwide elections. The Government Coalition must have the support of a majority of Knesset Members to survive. The Cabinet of Ministers, charged with administering internal and foreign affairs, is headed by the prime minister and is collectively responsible to the Knesset.
Israel proclaimed Jerusalem as its capital in 1949, although practically all countries maintain embassies in Tel Aviv. During the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel annexed the eastern part of the city, including the walled Old City, into the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem. The annexation is not recognized by the UN and most countries.
Hebrew and Arabic are the official languages of Israel. English is frequently used as a second language, and Russian is spoken by more than one-fifth of the population.
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Israel has mandatory conscription for Jewish, Druze and Circassian citizens; however, the majority of full-time yeshiva (religious study) students are exempt.
Army service is one of the most important aspects of Israeli life. Awareness of the army begins early, since all children have relatives in “the service.” Later on, Israeli teens begin to plan where they want to serve, the experience they want to have and where it might lead them. Young men ages 18 and older are required to serve three years, and young women 20 months. Ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva students are exempt, and Orthodox females can opt not to serve. Still, the vast majority of Israeli youth join the armed forces, and many volunteer for elite combat units. That makes the military a unique melting pot for Israelis from all backgrounds.
Men typically serve three years, and women two, usually beginning at the age of 18; men also serve compulsory reserve duty until the age of 51. Muslim and Christian Arabs are exempt from service, although some, especially Bedouin, volunteer.
Israel has a technologically advanced market economy. Cut diamonds, high-technology equipment, and fruits and vegetables are the leading exports. The global financial crisis of 2008-09 caused a brief recession in Israel, but the country faired better than most, following years of prudent fiscal policy and a resilient banking sector. In 2010, Israel formally joined the OECD. The discovery of the Leviathan natural gas fields off Israel's coast in 2010 hold promise for greater energy security.