Israel and the American Jew
I always knew I would visit Israel. I wasn’t sure when, but I knew I would get there.
Growing up, Israel was a presence. The survival of the Jewish state, in ’67 and ’73, was something my parents spoke about with concern. My close friend Judy spent summers visiting family in Israel and sharing her stories with me when she returned. By the time I was 18, I knew that Israel was the homeland of the Jewish people and a magical place to be.
Many years passed until I was able to visit Israel; my first trip occurred only six years ago. It was right after the disengagement from Gaza, and friends suggested it might be dangerous. But I knew that this was the time to go, so there I was on a standard ten-day beginners’ congregational trip. I figured I would see Israel, learn something and have a great time shopping. (Not necessarily in that order!)
Israel was amazing. The first days of the trip were exhausting – a lot of walking in extreme heat combined with many interesting lectures. I always knew the Zionist narrative, but being in the place it actually happened made it come alive. Learning about the connection between ancient Israel and the modern state of Israel was fascinating. Meeting the people and experiencing the culture made me want to do and try more. And the more I learned, the more I felt a connection to Israel.
Understanding the connection to our Jewish homeland and experiencing it firsthand are two very different things. For the first time, I was experiencing that connection myself and it was so powerful. Israel is where we connect to our history and our matriarchs and patriarchs. Israel is where our people fought for freedom against many different enemies. Israel is our Jewish homeland. When I walked the streets of Jerusalem, Nahariya and Tel Aviv, I walked in Jewish steps.
One day I was walking down the street in Tel Aviv and suddenly stopped and looked around. There were lots of people walking, lots of activity. And they were Jews. This was a Jewish city, founded by Jews, run by Jews. We had done this, and done it well!
I know there are people, both born Jews and Jews-by-choice, who claim they struggle with Israel because of the politics. I view it a little differently. While I’m proud to be an American, I’ve seen our country have political leaders I haven’t agreed with. Frankly, in the last ten years I’d guess every American has. That doesn’t mean we flee America. We stay and try to get it right. And I’ve seen that in Israel, they continually struggle with their leaders and the challenge of addressing security needs while creating a fair, compassionate society.
During the trip, we were scheduled to visit the Western Wall. I am not an overly emotional person, so I was sure it would be an interesting experience but not much more. Nothing prepared me for what came next. I stood at the Wall and touched the old stones and felt a connection–to God, to Israel, to the Jewish people. I felt a connection to those who had come before me and those who would come after me. I felt the joy and obligation and responsibility of being part of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. And I thanked God for making me a Jew.
Why does my reaction to Israel tend to interest people? Because I wasn’t born a Jew. I was raised in a different faith tradition which I had discarded by my 18th birthday. I wandered spiritually – b’midbar (in the desert) – for several years, until I connected with Judaism and threw my lot in with the Jewish people. I know some people who convert to Judaism struggle with peoplehood and Israel; that was not my struggle. From the beginning, I felt the connection to peoplehood and understood and accepted that all Israel looks out for one another. But it was in Israel that my Jewish self was raised to a whole new consciousness, a higher level of celebration of living a Jewish life.
I have been back to Israel several times since that trip almost six years ago. Each trip is a transformative experience that challenges me and expands my understanding of living and being a Jew. And I can truly say that my heart lies in the East.
How did you first experience Israel? How as your travel to Israel shaped your Jewish identity? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.