I knew we had arrived at El Al by the sea of Yarmulkes, SUVs, and strollers outside the terminal. Before even stepping foot in JFK, I was at home.
So. Many. Jews.
After going through the largest revolving door I’ve ever seen – with a guitar slung over my shoulder and two duffel bags in hand – I said goodbye to New York. Almost immediately, I was greeted by a number of friends in my Garin (group), who were equally fatigued and overwhelmed. I thought it would have hit me by then: hello, you’re moving to another country, why aren’t you freaking out.
It didn’t hit me until the “final” goodbye outside of security. My Dad, naturally, had tears in his eyes, and gave me the longest, warmest embrace. Dana (my Stepmom) hugged me about four times, with diminishing denial in each hug. My Mom hugged me last. With both of her hands on my shoulders, she looked fixedly into my eyes and said the words that have been ringing in my ears since:
“I am so proud of you.”
Last week, as a part of a 4-person panel, I shared that short anecdote with a group of 70 Jewish Federation donors from the U.S. I saw tears in the crowd. After the panel, one of the donors said he understood my Mother’s nachas (pride in one’s children), and after hearing our stories, felt a collective pride in the resilience of the Jewish people – especially the Jewish youth. I received so many hugs from these “strangers” who all offered their help, respect, and warm wishes. I won’t forget the man from Boston who said that his biggest regret in life was not doing exactly what I am doing right now.
His words raised the hairs on my arm. Despite the 100 degree weather and sticky humidity, I keep getting goosebumps here. I got them during the panel, when my three friends described their love for Israel in a way that echoed my feelings and my truth. I got them when we touched down in Israel and the plane erupted in cheering and song. I got them on my first Kabbalat Shabbat in Ra’anana, when the entire synagogue stood and clapped for us lone soldiers, welcoming us into the community.
At first, the attention was shocking. We’ve been interviewed on TV, radio, and in national newspapers. Yesterday, a barista recognized the name of our group from the news. A very Israeli man named Avi is making a documentary about us.
Honestly, it feels strange because we haven’t done anything yet. We have only received so much from the state and from our program—welcoming ceremonies, a significant sum of cash, an expedited bureaucracy process, and, you know, the small things like food and shelter for the next two years. We are the heroes?
Every day I wake up and acknowledge how miraculous it is to be here. Just 70 years ago, Jews were slaughtered by the millions across Europe. 70 years ago, Israel’s pioneers had to achieve the impossible in an impossible land surrounded by impossible enemies. Today, the democratic nation of Israel has offered me – along with thousands of other young Olim – a free graduate education in some of the world’s top universities. Today, Israel is the leading country in far too many categories to list. Today, despite having an enemy that continues to preach hate and violence, most Israelis cry for peace with all of their hearts—in temple, in school, and around the campfire. It is a dream—an idea more precious than gold—that bridges the great divides in this land.
And in the past few days, with ISIS gaining traction in Syria, I’ve prayed that much harder for peace. I pray that we don’t have to open another battlefront, which could endanger thousands of civilians, not to mention my friends headed soon to combat units.
Nimas lanu. We’ve had enough. Though I am not fully Israeli yet, I’m beginning to understand – in a deep, personal way – the source of Israeli cynicism. It is hardened pain from years of seeing loved ones fight and sometimes die in this intractable conflict. I thank G-d for the hard exterior that has enabled Israelis to survive, and even thrive, in the face of so many forces acting against them. Somehow, this perpetual conflict has helped unite the dysfunctional family that is the Israeli people.
With each passing day, I’m beginning to feel more and more a part of this family. I’ve settled in here at the Ra’anana Merkaz Klita (absorption center). The first few weeks were predictably crazy, filled with orientation sessions, ceremonies, Hebrew tests, group-bonding activities, and paperwork. I have no idea how people go through this process alone. With the help of Garin Tzabar, I now have a bank account, an Israeli cell number, health insurance, inspiring, helpful madrichim (counselors), and a group of ridiculously close friends.
These friendships are forming intensely and quickly, similar to camp friendships. In fact, life here slightly resembles camp. Our world is a peaceful bubble where our needs are the highest priority. We have incredible counselors: Nimrod (former IDF combat commander, current Jewish philosophy teacher, and a personal guru of mine), Michal (former IDF shooting instructor, an alumnus of Garin Tzabar, and an overall genuine, and caring person), and two female IDF soldiers whose job it is to teach us about Israeli society, history, and positions in the army.
We eat communally in a small dining hall, where we get 3 meals a day. (Believe it or not, I’d prefer the food at camp...but it's free so we don't complain.) Our group does nearly everything together, to the point that we need to go out of our way for a breath of alone time.
In this family of friends, each person has assumed certain roles. So far, I have enjoyed teaching yoga outside on the wooden deck, giving spontaneous massages, leading weekly Kabbalat Shabbat melodies, and adding a healthy dose of spirituality into daily life. Though I’m still figuring out how I want to practice my Judaism here in Israel, I know for certain that I must have Shabbat rituals involving music, community, and lots of ruach (spirit). There is an orthodox temple a few blocks away that I’ve been to twice, but I’m going to explore other places soon.
I am very close with my roommates, Roni, Gil, and Sheli. They all have Israeli parents (hence the names), so I get to practice my still-mediocre Hebrew with them. They are very patient with me and eager to teach me the cool Hebrew slang I need to get by. They are helping me blossom into the Israeli I am destined to be – yesh! (Yes!)
Our group, in general, vibes really well, and this past week has brought us that much closer. For five days we showered together, crawled through the dirt together, shot m16’s together, stood in formation together, sweat on each other, and subsisted mainly on cans of tuna and shoko-b’sakit (chocolate milk in a bag)…together. We slept in tents (and one night out in the field) at the Sde Boker army base for Gadna, a weeklong program created to introduce the army to 16-year-old Israelis. Instead, our 19-year-old commander was ordering around us 20-somethings with university degrees. It was an experience worthy of its own post, so stay tuned.
I am running out of time and mental energy, but I promise to write more soon. This is our first open Shabbat, so I’m headed now to Ramat HaSharon to see my cousins. I think once Ulpan (Hebrew class) begins on Sunday I will have more of a routine and therefore more time to write.
Wishing everyone a peaceful Shabbat!
|Parental Units at JFK|
|Me, Roni and Alissa on the Gadna army base|
|Yoga + Zionism = Leora's Life (my roommate Sheli on the left)|
|Garin "Nemo" in our "Moadon" (main hang-out room)|
|A falafel so epic it made it to the blog|