By Pamela Schuller, NFTY-GER Youth Programs Manager
Until two weeks ago, I was a Jewish Youth Worker who had never been to Israel. It’s not that I didn’t want to go – between college, jobs over college vacations and working at camp in the summers, finding 10 days to cut myself off from the world and head to Israel just felt impossible. I also wasn’t sure that I needed a trip to Israel. I already felt connected to Judaism and Israel and quite frankly, I don’t love traveling. A discussion was started in a URJ youth division staff meeting about going to Israel and I, almost like revealing a dark secret, admitted that I had never been. I realized how ridiculous that sounded coming from a Jewish youth worker. Luckily, a co-worker was in the same position. She talked me into registering for a Birthright trip and I reluctantly followed through.
Two weeks ago, I would have bet you one hundred dollars that my trip to Israel would be fun but my connection to Judaism would stay the same. I didn’t think that I would have an “ah-ha!” moment. I already understood what it meant to have a Jewish homeland. I boarded the El Al flight to Israel with 36 other people in their mid 20’s and the mindset that this trip would be a fun experience that I am supposed to have, not an experience that I needed.
As I went through the motions of the first six days, I was right about having a great time and meeting new and incredible people, but I was also right that nothing was changing in my head or my heart. Masada was beautiful; I had already seen pictures and knew the stories. The Dead Sea was an unreal sensation, but really just a fun day. The Western Wall was moving but I was looking so hard to find a new connection to it, that in the end, I didn’t. With only three days left, I was having an amazing, but not life-changing, time. I was okay with that.
The next stop on our trip was Mount Herzl, the Israeli Defense Force cemetery. I walked in and was immediately moved by how beautiful it was. After about 30 minutes of walking around, looking at graves, and hearing stories, I broke down and started sobbing. My emotions were so unexpected that it caught me off guard.
See, my dad passed away when I was young. He was buried in a Jewish section of an Ohio cemetery. Two years ago, the Jewish section of that cemetery was vandalized and my dad’s stone was shattered. While at Mount Herzl, I was struck with a feeling of how incredible it is to have a place where a stone can have a Star of David on it, and it’s safe. The idea of somebody being able to rest safely in peace after their life was not something I had thought about much before and I realized in that moment how important it is to have a Jewish homeland.
In my time at Mount Herzl, my connection to Israel changed from a cerebral connection to an emotional connection, a new connection which until that moment, I didn’t realize I was missing.
My trip to Israel was one of the best experiences of my life. It was a very personal experience that I needed and am so thankful for. I found my connection to Israel and I wasn’t even looking.