I’ve been thinking about freedom and choices lately, and not just because my madrichim have spoken to my group about the two.

This past weekend, ITF-Netanya, ITF-Be’er Sheva and ITF-Beit She’an went to Ein Bokek for our last weekend seminar. The theme was liberty and there was no better place to learn about this than Masada. Masada, the mountain I climbed at 3:30AM on Birthright twenty months ago, has always had a special place in my heart. While being up at 3:00AM for a hike was not my idea of fun, it’s the night before that hike I remember because that night began my thought process of coming back to Israel.

Twenty months ago on a warm summer evening, I sat on a bench at the Ein Gedi Field School. I saw the Dead Sea in the distance, marveling at how the lights danced in the sky. One of the Birthrighters, Zachary, was braiding my hair while I chatted with some of the other Birthrighters—Laurence, Clara, Rebecca and Rebecca’s sister, Dani. We talked about our respective post-Birthright plans: more schooling or working. We added each other on Facebook. As Zachary continued to braid my hair, my heart stopped beating for a few seconds. I’m not religious so I won’t say it was spiritual, but it was cosmic at the very least. I felt a sense of peace claim my body that I hadn’t felt in a long time and I knew, I just knew, that I had to get back here. I didn’t know how I would or for how long, but I was determined.

While I ignore the lack of breaths I felt climbing Masada twenty months ago or how one of the soldiers had to help me up the stairs of a cave that lay under the ground, I do keep one memory tucked away in my heart—my Bat Mitzvah. Clara and another Birthrighter, Simone, had their own Bat Mitzvahs while one of the boys, Daniel, had a Bar Mitzvah. I chose the name Talia Lev (see my post “Lev”) per Matt’s, one of my two American Birthright guides, suggestion. It was special to have such a serene moment in front of these people and to celebrate Jewish-ness when the past ones met terrible fates on the top of Masada. I didn’t know what the words that I had to recite meant, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they paid homage to the Jews who weren’t allowed to be who they are without reaping the consequences. The Jews chose death in order to be free. Their choices were limited under the Romans. But freedom and choices are two things that Israel lets Jews have. It’s something I don’t take for granted.

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*My Bat Mitzvah on top of Masada, July 10th, 2012*

While basking in the weather that this weekend provided, I took a moment on Saturday night to stare out at the Dead Sea from the balcony of my room at the hostel we were all staying at. The circumstances are different of course than they were twenty months ago—working at a nanny job where I wasn’t respected and planning on going to graduate school, before I realized what a huge mistake I was making. Now I’m about to turn twenty-five, I didn’t just come back to Israel—I moved here—and I want to be an Israel activist. I never saw myself doing what I’m doing now—giving up ten months of my life and being hounded by some of my family members about not having a “real job,” but I know that I needed to do this. I was given the choice to do this. Because of all the Jews who gave their lives for this land, I get to be here. And if there is an afterlife, I hope the Jewish spirits know how much I appreciate it.

I have had people tell me that they admire me for moving here and how moving here was heroic. I don’t think of my actions as brave; I did something that I felt was necessary at the time and I am still just doing that.

I will never understand why my Jews have to be the religion that has lost so many of the tribe. I cannot think of any real reason. All I know is that I am glad that the Jews have kept going. They surround themselves with life, watching children waxing as the wounded wane. Pausing to look at the truth of that now—the way the Jews keep going—I realize that the Jews are enthusiastic about the future instead of sad about the past. They don’t forget the past, but they keep moving forward.

On Saturday night, as I went back inside to my room, I couldn’t help but think of how different it was to be looking at the Dead Sea now. Twenty months ago, I had things planned out. Now I know what I want to do, but don’t know how to attain it. I offer a deceivingly smooth space to my community of voyeuristic spectators. No one sees the pile of internal problems that remain unsorted for days and hide outside the frame of a polished picture. I have issues.

My side of my room in Netanya may look clean, but I am a mess. I can be too quick to shush and not quick enough to hug. I show grumpiness instead of grace. Most of the time, my cohort and students forgive the many errors, but I have the tendency to let my failures define me instead of my successes and I forget the gray in-between.

There are the days where I feel like I am trying to convince myself of everything and I feel tired from feeling so much, as opposed to doing so much. Other days the cracks in my heart are glued together only by Nutella-covered fingers and a strong will. Sometimes I struggle with reality and care too much about my past and other times I think that my connection to the universe is not as fragile. And of course, some days feel so much like a dream than I can’t separate them from the holiness of this place.

While I sat on top of Masada yesterday morning, I stared at the big Israeli flag that waved in the wind. While the Western Wall is my favorite site in Israel (so far, anyway), I love nothing more than seeing the flag show her colors of blue and white. The blue sky with its white clouds ran over the mountains with beautiful shades of pink and yellow mixed in. While the sunrise was much less bright than the 5:30AM sunrise Bus 129 went to see twenty months ago, the sentiment was still the same. The flag still represents the freedom to be Jewish in this country. The sunrise offers up hope of a new tomorrow.

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*Wearing my Birthright shirt in front of the same flag that blew in the wind twenty months ago. March 30th, 2014*

I stay up late every night corresponding with various friends over email, Facebook and Tumblr, responding to comments and answering questions about this country.

I wish the Jews were not the people familiar with the constant minus ones. I wish there were a formula that could multiply the years and split up the heartbreak. I wish anti-Semitism wouldn’t take one more child away from his or her parents.

I fell asleep easily in my bed at the hostel this weekend, exhausted after the discussions about freedom, choices and liberty. There will always be days that turn into nights while a new day springs upon the horizon. I keep going and continue to do what seems necessary at the time.

I maintain enthusiasm for the future and I deal with the gray in-between.

The madrichim told the groups to differentiate between the freedom from something and the freedom to something. Unlike when I lived in London, I was running from something. But since I have choices, whether it’s deciding between the many different flavors of ice cream at Ein Gedi Sea of Spa or the choice to be as Jewish as I want to here, I can run towards something—continuing to learn more about this country. Being educated about the pain and tears that have been shed in order to make the Jews’ vision of a place they can always call home a reality. Teaching my students day after day. Thanking my lucky stars for those who came before me and died for my and the other Jews’ around the world’s right to exist.

And us Jews, we are the chosen people, all heroes who walk one another home.