Although I have always strongly identified as a Jew I did not grow up with strong ties to, or feelings about, Israel. And this lasted well into my adulthood. When my daughter came home from her confirmation class’s trip to the URJ’s Religious Action Center in Washington DC and told her parents she wanted to spend a year in Israel, my interest rapidly grew.
Coincidentally Ohabei Shalom was planning a congregational trip to Israel for the next year. My wife and I decided we would go as a family. My experience touring Israel was transformative. I had recently completed the excellent Me’ah adult education program, and had a broader and deeper knowledge of Jewish history, including both our ancient and modern connections to this land. Although I was primed to find my Israeli travels interesting, I could not have predicted how deeply I would connect with the land and the nation. Every cliché applied – I felt kinship with the people, connection to the history, connection to the land and nation.
Here is an excerpt from a blog I kept to help me make sense of my experience of this first trip to Israel. On January 1, 2010 I wrote about my time in Machaneh Yehudah – the open-air market in Jerusalem:
“We are pretty much swept along by the crowds of shoppers, looking in vain for a falafel stand or other lunch stop. We ultimately find some trays of fried food, rice and grape leaves and we make do as best we can. Then we move on to nuts and halvah before finally reaching a small store, so packed with shoppers that it was more a rugby scrum than a shop, selling the freshest, best rugeleh I’ve ever eaten…After a lot more shopping, I guide our little group back to the hotel. As the afternoon fades, the city begins to slow down. Shops are closing around us, people are heading home. It is growing quiet as the week ends and Shabbat approaches. I didn’t experience this in Mitzpe Ramon last week – it is a small town and we were already inside the hotel as evening approached. But here I feel it very clearly. And although I have heard people speak rapturously about the experience of being in Israel as Shabbat arrives, I couldn’t imagine the experience and was unaffected. Not until now as it happens around me. My reaction takes me by surprise. This alignment of my personal practice and the world around me is deeply satisfying – It’s wonderful.”
My feeling of connection persisted after I returned home. I read a dozen books, trying to understand both the details of modern Israeli history and the perspectives of fellow Jews who have made it their home. I began to struggle, too, with the problems created by the modern Israeli state.
And for a second time my daughter’s decision led me into deeper engagement with Israel. She had spent a gap year in Israel and returned to earn a degree in Middle Eastern History. She went to work for a national organization whose work focuses on advocating – in the United States – for a political solution to Israel’s conflict with its Palestinian neighbors. I found a role with this group as a volunteer, an advocate and as an American Jew who loves Israel, loves democracy, and wants to see both secured and enhanced.
Am Yisrael Chai!