I was standing at the arrival gate at Ben Gurion Airport waiting to pick up my wife and three daughters as they arrived (a week after me) to begin our year long journey in Israel, when I realized that this year was going to be something special. The song “Home” by Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeros was playing on repeat in my mind – “Home. I’m coming home. Home is wherever I’m with you.”
If you don’t know the song, take a listen:
My family was coming home.
There I was, with four overpriced and underwhelming bouquets of sunflowers that I bought from a street vendor in Jerusalem on my way to the airport, three expensive airport balloons, and an iced coffee for my wife. My hebrew is still “cacha cacha” (ie., not so good), but it didn’t stop me from trying to negotiate the prices on the flowers and balloons like a good Israeli… not that I was successful with either. As I waited anxiously, the feeling of being a part of this amazing country, this amazing community, this amazing people, began to reach to the forefront of my thoughts. All I hoped was that the people around me waiting for their families wouldn’t realize that I’m just faking it – I am just an American, living here for one year. Suddenly, a sweet, religious, family of about 15 joined me at the gate and struck up conversation. They were all wearing t-shirts they had made with large pictures of their grandparents who were coming to visit, they each had three or four balloons, some of the girls were holding home-made cakes decorated in flags and small El-Al planes. In other words, they totally outdid me. My sad looking flowers and airport balloons (think: balloons you buy at the lobby of a hospital) didn’t hold a candle. I will get there eventually, I told myself. Maybe when my parents come visit in a couple of months. Although the family was sweet, I know they were thinking: “rookie!” Rookie, I could live with. At least now I am on the team.
No matter how many times you have driven up Highway 1 into Jerusalem, it is always a breathtaking experience.
After driving some 40 miles east from Ben Gurion Airport, through the middle of the country, you start to literally and emotionally ascend a winding road up the Jerusalem hills, until you are suddenly welcomed by the famous “Bruchim Habaim” sign.
“Bruchim Habaim” is usually translated as “Welcome”, but its literal translation – “blessed are those who come” – takes on more significance when reading the sign as you enter the city of Jerusalem. As I crossed the “Bruchim Habaim” sign and made my way into Jerusalem, goose bumps came over me. I truly felt blessed.
Two weeks later, and it’s incredible how seamlessly you can transition into life in Israel despite having come from the other side of the world. My girls are in camp, the oldest in an outdoors/nature camp, the middle in a “Gan” and the baby is going to mommy-and-me classes in the newly restored and repurposed train station. While their Hebrew is not there just yet, they have a great attitude. This positive attitude is mirrored by their camp counselors and new friends. It is incredible how welcoming people are when they hear that you are here for the year. Being in Israel is like living amongst family.
Earlier tonight, instead of welcoming my wife and daughters to Israel, I was lucky enough to be one of the 30,000 people welcoming more than 9,000 Jewish athletes from over 70 countries at the Opening Ceremony for the 2013 Maccabiah Games held at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem. This rookie “Israeli” was surrounded by thousands of others who were there just to applaud and support these athletes and to welcome them to the State of Israel. A feeling of Jewish pride and Zionism overcame me as I watched these athletes march onto the field, country-by-country, from places that you would expect, such as the US, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, England, etc., and from countries which you would never expect such as Nicaragua, Zimbabwe, Slovenia, Bahamas, etc.
It was particularly moving to watch the Argentinian delegation march into the stadium waving both Argentinian and Israeli flags, full of energy, happiness and pride, since today was the 19th anniversary of the AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires, where 85 innocent people were killed, hundreds injured and one of the largest Jewish communities in Latin America was shattered. Tonight these Argentinian athletes marched with Jews from countries which have also seen anti-semitic driven atrocities, on a different scale, such as Germany, Russia, Poland, Austria, and Spain. They marched together. They marched around a stadium in their own Jewish state. They marched around a stadium filled with 30,000 of their Jewish brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers. They marched with their heads held high.
Being at this event was exactly why I wanted to spend a year in Israel with my wife and three girls. These are lessons that cannot be taught in a classroom.
This year I also have bought myself and my family front row seats to watch two teenagers from Miami join the IDF as volunteer “lone soldiers”, since my wife’s brother and cousin have just enlisted together. Both of them just were accepted as part of “Tzanchanim” – the prestigious paratrooper unit of the IDF. Watching them come home from basic training, sharing their experiences and perspectives with us, is amazing. Watching them transforming into strong, confident, and proud Jewish men is an invaluable experience for me and my girls. They remind us that thousands of teenagers join the Israeli Defense Forces every year to protect this amazing country we have established in our historic homeland.
And so, the Israel experience continues.
I’ll keep you all in the loop as the fun unfolds.
Am Israel Chai.