My First Trip To Israel



by Arlene Chernow

I was raised by loving, secular Jewish parents in a neighborhood with not too many Jewish neighbors. It wasn’t until my children were young that I began to discover Judaism. I found that Judaism, especially Reform Judaism, was a great fit for what I believed (which is what I have since heard from many Jews-by-choice).

The more I learned, the more I came to love Judaism and all it encompassed – the wisdom of the sages, its values, Torah study, and the calendar of holidays to celebrate with my family and community.

But Israel? How did I feel about Israel? It seemed faraway and remote.

Eli and Arlene Chernow in Jerusalem

Our first family trip to Israel was in 1994, and oh boy, did my world view change.

My family liked to characterize the trip by saying that I “cried every time I saw a new rock,” and they were right. There were many moments that I felt overwhelmed with emotion. Everything about being in Israel just felt so right.

‘Jewish time’ was defined on Shabbat. I will never forget my first Shabbat in Jerusalem, and the feeling of simply walking to temple, but walking with so many fellow Jews who were all doing the same thing. I felt, at some level, that I knew each one of them. Of course, passersby smiled and exchanged Shabbat greetings, but I had never been in a place where going to Shabbat services was what everyone seemed to be doing. (Can you imagine wanting to smile at drivers on the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles?) After services, I was struck by the sense of community, watching people walking with platters and pots of food to share Shabbat dinner with friends and family.

Jerusalem, an incredible bustling city, was eerily quiet on Shabbat afternoon.  I set out with my family on a long walk with friends. Once again, I couldn’t help noticing how families were out and about, walking to visit friends, talking and laughing in clusters on the streets, and gathering to share Shabbat lunch. Although I knew that most of the people who I observed probably didn’t share my view of liberal Judaism, I still felt a bond with them on that Shabbat.

Israel is full of contrasts – ancient ruins and modern technology, Israelis and Israeli Arabs, Bedouins and Christians, modern Hebrew and ancient traditions, all blended together in this amazing place.

Above all, I felt the country’s strong desire for peace, while at the same time having to keep armed and alert to protect its citizens.  That was dramatized for me on Sunday morning, while we were waiting for a vegetable market to open. Jerusalem police and Israeli soldiers were guarding the barriers surrounding the market. And there in front of me stood a beautiful young soldier, carrying a gun that seemed to be nearly as tall as she was.  When she spotted a family she knew, she bent down, gun and all, to kiss the little girl in the stroller. That moment captured Israel for me – warmth and love, and wearing an Uzi like a shoulder bag. As a mother, I couldn’t imagine a submachine gun positioned next to the stroller of my young child. But that is part of the fabric of everyday life for Israelis.

As we appreciate the beauty and history of Israel, and the magnificent experience we have as visitors, feeling of being part of the majority culture, we must also think of the reality of living in Israel. I will always carry a piece of Israel with me as I go about my life in the United States.

Arlene Chernow is an Outreach Specialist at the Union for Reform Judaism.

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