Friday, August 29, 2014

Adjusting to Newfound Fame

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

Saturday, August 9, 2014

True Life: Leora's Making Aliyah

Tomorrow, I begin the next chapter of my life.

I will board a charter plane at JFK filled exclusively with hundreds of Olim (immigrants) who are also returning home to Israel.

The process of moving to Israel from the Diaspora is formally called “Aliyah,” which means, “to ascend.” The word dates back to the Babylonian exile (600 BCE), and has since gained many connotations. From the late 19th century to the establishment of Israel (1948), Aliyah referred to the waves of mass Jewish migration to the historic land of Israel. During this time period, Aliyah implied refuge, freedom, and a quest for self-determination.

Although some Jews today are making Aliyah for their safety, the word has gained a more spiritual, symbolic implication. Jewish self-determination is no longer a pressing historical imperative. The modern state of Israel exists and thrives. So why do thousands of Jews continue to move to Israel every year?  Why do so many American Jews leave behind a comfortable life for one that is far more challenging?  

I see how logically - from the outside - it appears to be a risky investment:  

I am moving to the most hotly contested piece of land in the world.  I am moving to a country in which housing prices exceed income, bureaucracy abounds, and the frenetic energy is palpable. I am moving to a nation whose neighbors — in every direction — wish her extinction. Especially now, with tensions flaring high, her enemies’ wishes have been made clear. For the past 35 days, Hamas has reinforced its desire to terrorize and ultimately eliminate the Israeli people. 

I refuse to let Hamas win. No rocket or terror tunnel will compromise my commitment to helping Israel prosper. And thus far, the attacks have only strengthened my convictions and deepened my desire to physically be in the land. 

However, long before this escalation in violence, Aliyah was the inevitable next step. The close people in my life know that I am the most connected, creative, joyous, and inspired in Israel.My Aliyah is "ascending" to a land where I am aligned with my past, present, and future. 

But why the army? I have heard this question in so many intonations: concern, confusion, admiration, skepticism. Truthfully, the answer is as complex as the feelings people have when they hear about my decision. It’s a multi-layered cake of reasons, and each layer is distinct yet connected to others.   

On the physical level, I am joining the IDF to help ensure my people’s safety. 
On the theoretical level, I am joining to reform and refresh Zionism as it confronts new demands.  
On the spiritual level, I am joining because I was called to do so. Ten months ago, major events unfolded that made me eligible for the IDF; that same night, a gut feeling told me to dive in and trust myself. Then the stars aligned to make it all possible. 

And thus, this yogi, peace-loving hippie chic found herself signing up to become a "Lone Soldier." I must say, at first it was difficult to reconcile these two parts of my identity. People have actually asked me if I’ll be able to practice yoga in the army. I reply, “certainly, between the morning energy healing workshop and afternoon aromatherapy.” 

Yes, I have come to terms with the fact that there will be no organic, vegetarian salad bar in the army dining hall.  No, I cannot bring incense to my base. However, what I can and will bring to Israel – all jokes aside -- is a healthy dose of what I call “educated idealism.” I've educated myself on the many challenges Israel faces and somehow remained idealistic enough to envision change. Sure, the army will challenge my inner peace and idealism, but in the end, will probably strengthen it. 

I also like to remind people that although the next few years are about giving to Israel through the IDF, I will undoubtedly gain so much from the experience. My service will help me transition into Israeli society, open up doors professionally, and introduce me to a slew of new Israeli friends. It will be a period of immense growth that will push my physical, mental, and emotional comfort zones. 

To that I say: BRING IT ON. I am ready to struggle with my Hebrew, with my Judaism, with living in a new and crazy place. I am ready to take Israel by storm. However I may not ever be truly “ready” to live so far away from my family and friends. I will miss them greatly. I am going to cry a lot.

The good news: I have faith that everything will be more than O.K. My faith in the Universe has replaced any fear or doubt with a sense of calm, empowerment, and excitement for what lies ahead. 

More good news: I have a built-in group of friends – my Garin – that will be with me every step of the way. My Garin (group) is comprised of two-dozen 20-somethings who are also making Aliyah and joining the army through the well-established program Garin Tzabar. I’ve met them already (we’ve had four weekend-long seminars) and they are wonderful, diverse, and equally meshuganeh (crazy).
(By the way, Garin means “seed” and Tzabar is slang for a native Israeli. Essentially, we are little seedlings of Israelis. How cute.)

Our new home will be the Ra’anana Absorption Center. It sounds like a refugee camp, but I assure you it isn’t. (It’s more like a dorm…pictures to prove it coming soon.) Ra’anana, a small suburban city 15 Kilometers north of Tel Aviv, is known for its big park, clean streets, and its rather large Anglo immigrant community. (Not good for the whole learning Hebrew bit, but I’ll figure it out.)  

As soon as we arrive, we begin the “absorption period.” (Cue my Dad making a slurpy sound). The period lasts 3 months, and will consist of daily Hebrew classes, programming, and fun bureaucratic paperwork that immigrants normally figure out on their own. This program cradles us, and I am NOT complaining one bit.

By November, most of us will be drafted, after extensive physical and intelligence testing of course. I have some ideas as to what army position I’d like, but I’ll save that for another post. I don’t want to jump the gun (no pun intended), and I still have some last-minute packing to do.

Before I conclude, I have to get a tad sentimental. Almost exactly four years ago, I was sitting on this same couch, creating “LeoraIsraeLife” a few days before my gap year. Between then and now I have received a college degree, gained insight into the power of “now,” and started crafting my life with intentionality. I have been so supported and loved, surrounded by an abundance of family and friends. I have become more grateful, giving, and aware.

I am eager to thrust all of myself – this more grown up, self-assured self – into a new adventure in Israel.

I will be posting here as much as I can throughout this process to keep you all (as my friend Rachel so aptly put it) in the “Leora Loop.” My wish is that I can remain close to you all - not in physical distance - but in communication and in love.

Until next post b’aaretz! (In Israel!)

My Garin during our 3rd weekend Seminar

My Garin at the NYC Israeli Day Parade  

Future IDF soldiers in NYC for an interview with Haaretz