It was a grey world back in elementary school. I was surrounded by adults that assured me that I was royalty in exile, that because my people endured torture for thousands of years under the brutal hands of the goyim, I was special. God chose us to suffer. This was by no means explicitly said. Yet in every sneer and condescending stare aimed at our gentile neighbors, in the obsessive daily review of every sin we perpetrated, and in the scrupulous accounting of all the wrongs ever committed against us I was taught that being a Jew means to be superior to all and to suffer for it.
My parents and a select few others stood out as beacons of light in an otherwise dark world. In the face of all that, they gave me the tools I needed to discover my own path to God. Had I not found my own community, that darkness undoubtedly would have swallowed me. Unfortunately I have many friends who were driven away and who rejected their birthrights because of that same darkness. They are beyond reproach for this.
Thank God, this is my third year mourning and celebrating as an Israeli citizen! Looking back on my life it is truly amazing all the things that needed to happen perfectly in order to bring me to where I am now, especially considering that the first religious community I was exposed to really did not resonate with me. The turning point was when my parents sent me on a Bnei Akiva summer program in Israel called Mach Hach Ba’aretz. For the first time in my life I was exposed to a different kind of Jewish community. I was inducted into a brotherhood of songs in the night, crazy dancing on Shabbat and pure simcha (joy) in avodat Hashem (the service of God). I was hearing, experiencing and collecting for the first time numerous positive definitions of Judaism. But this was again, not enough. I can suffer as a Jew, and I can have fun as a Jew, still I can also do both those things and be anything else in the world I want to be.
There are moments in life when everything changes. They can come as silent as a mouse in the night, or they can thunder by, shaking you to your foundations. This particular one begins with my Rosh Bus, the head counselor. He was the epitome of a cool Israeli, tough and rugged, we all looked up to him. Half the group could jump him without warning and he would just stand up and shake off the howling and laughing teenagers as if they weighed nothing.
A few weeks into the program we were brought to Har Herzl, the famous military cemetery in Jerusalem which is the final resting place for many Jewish heroes. I did not understand where I was. To me this carefully tended monument was only a lush green park, perfect for a stroll on a beautiful summer’s day. Bones were simply bones, what did they have to do with me? We stopped at different graves and read short pieces about the men and women buried there. At the last grave we visited, he handed a copy of a news story to a boy standing next to me and asked him to read it aloud.
The article was about a young man named Shmuel Weiss who was a Medic in the Golani Brigade. During Operation Defensive Shield his unit was ambushed by terrorists and one of his squad mates was wounded by sniper fire. Shmuel against orders stayed to help his fallen comrade and they both were killed in action.
This is when it happened, something so disturbing and unexpected it shook me to my core. Our Rosh Bus, tough guy, the cool Israeli started to cry. I can recall to this day the feeling of dismay washing down my spine as he began to speak. I could never remember being more afraid. He looked up at us with tears in his eyes and unveiled his wounded heart for us to see, and he said “That man Shmuel was trying to save.. he was my brother.” His name was Matanya Robinson.
When we are faced with life changing moments often we are afraid. Afraid of our potential, afraid of what we might become, that through this change we are losing forever a portion of ourselves. I was afraid of only a few words because unconsciously I knew that once I heard them they would linger with me forever, effecting all my future choices, nudging the direction of my thoughts and influencing even my own self identity.
Four words, “he was my brother,” changed my life forever. I did not know it at the time but this was the moment I started to become a Zionist. It was what happened here that helped me to decide that I would be proud to be a Jew. Judaism is more than an old rotting relic from the distant past. We are more than a small community in my hometown of Philadelphia guarding dusty books and indignantly suffering quietly in our comfortable suburban homes.
We are spiritual, innovative, athletic, intelligent, beautiful, headstrong, and more than occasionally dysfunctional. Above all this, what makes me love being Jewish, beyond pain, beyond suffering, transcending all joy is that we are a family. Before we suffered, sinned, even before we were chosen by the one and true God almighty, we were a family. Matanya Robinson gave up his life, he was called to make the ultimate sacrifice and he did it in part for me, someone he never even met so that our ancestral homeland would remain safe if I ever desired to live there.
Israel is the seat of our power and the home to our family. It is our birthright, it is the land God gave us and it is the only place where we can fully express all that is wonderful and good within us. Israel is where small actions change the world, and the love of brothers never met break all boundaries. During these past few years Israel has had to face some tough times. Sometimes being Israeli is hard, and there is grief involved, and sometimes there is unbounded happiness and joy. I feel honored to finally call myself Israeli and I am forever grateful to God that he lit my path to rediscovering my nation, my homeland and my family.
Am Yisroel Chai!
Yehoshua Yaakov Shore
!עם ישראל חי
יהושע יעקב שור