Around 260 days ago, I left my house in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, for JFK airport in New York. I met up with teenagers that I had never met before, bid my family and friends farewell, and took off for Israel for my 10th grade spring semester with Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim (TRY).
I had never been to Israel before, and I had never been away from my family for very long. This was all very new for me. The kids at the airport seemed nice, but I was nervous. I cried the entire plane ride over. I wanted out. I wanted my mom, my dad, my sister, and my brother. On the airplane, I sat next to some elderly Russian lady who did not talk to me, and for once, I actually wanted my little brother to be poking me in the side until I got angry. I did not think that I could do it — I could not be away from home for four months, I could not live in another country; I could not make new friends. I had never felt pure fear and anxiety until that flight over.
When we landed in Israel, on January 26, I was still scared. I could not lift my bag off of the conveyor belt, and when I did get it off — with help — I could not load it on to my cart. I could not find where I was supposed to go, and I could not recognize anyone from the program that I had met at JFK. I finally saw signs saying “TRY” and I walked over to them.
The TRY counselors led us to the buses, and helped us load our bags. A girl I had never met before asked if I would sit with her on the bus. We talked the entire ride to Jerusalem. On January 26, about 260 days ago, I saw Jerusalem for the first time. All 40 odd of us stood on Mt. Scopus and gazed out at the city that would be our home for the next few months. It was pretty but I was still scared: what if I got lost? What if I, somehow, was the victim of a terrorist attack? What if I was kidnapped? What if I made no friends? What if I had terrible roommates? What if no one liked me? I wanted to go home. Although I was not fond of my high school, for some reason, at that moment, I would have rather been there than in Israel.
Then, something clicked.
I found people to talk to. I had people to hang out with. I enjoyed my classes. I did well. I stopped feeling homesick. I fit in.
I spent four months of my life in Israel, living in a dorm, sharing a room with two other girls, constantly surrounded by tons of kids my age, always stimulated with all sorts of activities. But now, I sit in my room or somewhere else around my house in New Jersey, or somewhere at my school, and everything is quiet. My room feels lonely because it is just me in it. I don’t have someone running down the hallway with music to wake me up at 6:30 in the morning. There are no midnight talks, or sliding down the hallway in socks, or yelling at people to clean the communal kitchen, shower floods, non-violent communication going on in one room, and heated debate going on in others.
I miss English class after lunch with Rabbi Chaim Kornberg, a cute old man who urged us to debate him, telling us that he could be wrong, and we should tell him why. I miss Betsalel, my Israel Core Course (ICC), Jewish history, teacher, with his muddled British accent, snapping at us to pay attention. I miss complaining about the French and Russian kids, who also lived on our campus, who inherently hated us as much as we hated them. I miss tiyulim (trips) on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I miss piling on to a big orange Gershon Tours bus, which waited for us across the street from the Co-Op Shop, Betsalel and his counterpart Alexandra thanking us for being on time, or scolding us when we were late.
One of the integral parts of the TRY program is the Israel Core Course (ICC). In this class, we discussed Jewish history from pre-Abraham until today. The more I learned about Jewish history, the more of a Zionist I became. At first, I treated ICC as just another history course, like I was learning about some far distant event that doesn’t affect me. However, ICC changed how I saw the world. I began to see things through a more Jewish lens. Before ICC, I thought that I belonged in the Diaspora. I was a very comfortable Diaspora Jew. I wanted to be back in my nice suburban house in Cherry Hill, New Jersey with my family. I liked talking about Israel and meeting Israelis, but moving or living in Israel was not high on any priority list of mine. I had planned to stay in America for my entire life.
By the time I left Israel on June 1, 132 days ago, I did not want to leave. I could be away from everything I knew for four months. I could live in another country. I could make new friends. I could do it.
There is no more fighting with roommates, crazy host Shabbats, or taking cross-country public transportation. Never again will I be involved in a debate as passionate as the one over whether to have a “mechitza Monday,” nor will I ever again be in a room of teenagers who all know what a shtrimel is or teenagers who could discuss the topic of Jewish assimilation for hours. Most significantly, however, I will never again be in the same place at the same time with the all of the people I spent four months of my life with on Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim.