At this time tomorrow, provided my flights are on time, I will be on an airplane back to Boston. The time has come to bid adieu to the Holy Land and to head back to America. Massachusetts, my home state for twenty-four years, will welcome me as a twenty-five-year-old who has gotten up close and personal with Israeli culture on a daily basis. I’m rather ambivalent towards heading back home, seeing as apart from my amazing nanny and babysitting jobs, I didn’t really have anything keeping me there, but leaving Israel will be strange.

Living, working and exploring in Israel for ten months was never how I envisioned spending my quarter-life crisis. As an American Jew, I was expected to become a doctor, lawyer or at the very least be married to one. I have done none of those things. Instead, I went to a college focused on education because I wanted to be a teacher. I have worked with children for over ten years through daycare, an internship, two field placements, two nanny jobs, babysitting and teaching English in Israel. The pedagogy I learned in college prepared me to become an effective educator. My path was seen as strange to some, no more so than my London cohort. There were eleven other interns in my study abroad program and not one of them had ever worked with children in the capacities that I had. We clashed constantly and they didn’t understand that working with children forces you to look at issues differently. When I went on my Birthright trip almost two years ago, I felt out of place at first because my Birthrighters were post grads who were going to law, medical or graduate school. Even though I had been accepted to graduate school, it was the Birthrighters who showed me that I was making a mistake by trying to go to school for a subject that I knew nothing about. They told me to explore and explore I did. Even through my Birthrighters were heading into careers that I could never do, they were interested in the fact that I worked with children. I liked having friends who weren’t in education and they liked having friends who were. My Birthrighters, who I can never give the proper thanks that they deserve, were one of my main impetuses for coming to Israel, well, besides the fact that Masa harassed me about coming back to Israel pretty much the moment I got off of the plane when I hit Boston.

It’s been a whirlwind experience in the land of milk and honey. My experience has been far from idyllic, but I mainly remember the good. I had a friend at my first high school, Gia, one of the most beautiful women I know, meet up with me in London when I was living there because she was studying abroad in Spain and was taking a trip to London with two of her friends. Gia knew me in high school as a Goody-Two-Shoes with family issues. Now Gia saw me in this trippy club, looking thinner in a ballerina skirt with the flats that the Dandelion used to dub me as “Twinkle Toes.” I couldn’t tell if she was perplexed or happy that I had a drink in my hand because I didn’t touch the stuff until college. But Gia had said I had changed for the better. Seeing a familiar face had cheered me up immensely after a difficult semester. Gia and I met up last summer for dinner and as usual, she was still beautiful, inside and out. She paid the entire tab (I covered the tip), said it was a send-off to Israel and had told me I’d come back from Israel a changed woman, even if I still had my doubts about coming here. Gia was right—I have changed. Even my Netanya cohort voted me “Most Changed” for the digital yearbook that one of the Fellows made. There was no runner-up.

I know I’ve changed physically with a seventeen-pound weight loss, the haircut that my Fellow, Leah gave me when she has never cut anyone else’s hair besides her own and my skin glows honey-dipped. I keep my toes and nails painted, too. But I won’t take away the physical changes as much as I will take away the emotional changes.

Being in Israel repaired my relationship with my sister, Devon. She was studying abroad in London when I was living here and had randomly emailed me in October of last year to say that she liked my blog. We began to email and Skype/FaceTime each other and made plans for me to see her when I had booked my ticket to London for my Chanukah vacation. As we kept talking, it felt comfortable and normal. We never mentioned it, but there was a silent agreement between us that we didn’t hate talking to each other. That for whatever reason, we kept wanting to talk to each other and found solace in the other’s voice.

It’s hard to explain how much I appreciated spending Thanksgiving in London with Devon and her boyfriend, Will. (See my post “You Can’t Take Israel Out Of Me.”) Thanksgiving has never been my favorite holiday because I have to sit around the dinner table and hear about what I’m doing wrong with my life. At least with Devon and Will, I got a better Thanksgiving in London than I did when I lived there (no emergency room visit this time!) and heading to Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park left me with better memories than I had when DJ had been running her mouth the first time I went.

I had missed not seeing my cousins in London, as when I lived in London, it was much easier to see them. I never realized how much I missed having a family member around until I got to see Devon. At least Devon’s presence alleviated my need and it was nice to have someone who could understand my quirks better than anyone else could. I forgot what it was like to have to keep up my guard. At least with Devon, I didn’t have to. After leaving London, we still talked and now that Devon is twenty-one, I look forward to taking her out for a belated birthday drink, especially since she sent me money for my birthday lunch this year.

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*Winter Wonderland, November 28th, 2013*

Israel has taught me more about Judaism. I am still confused as ever. I took a course my sophomore year of college called American Identities and one of the papers we wrote had us analyze which of our master statuses we thought about on a daily basis. The only two I ever thought of were my biological sex and my sexual orientation. My sex determined what bathroom I used in public and what birth control to take to prevent pregnancy. My sexual orientation showed me that I was attracted to men. Judaism was something I could “turn off.” I don’t have a Jewish name or wear any jewelry that would denote me as a Jew. What I didn’t know until listening to some Israelis in Boston last year as part of the Boston branch of Combined Jewish Philanthropies’ (CJP) Hatikvah Officers Mission was that America gave one more ways to be Jewish. I’ve noticed this in Israel. Even though Israel is a democracy, the Rabbinate still controls many facets of life here. One of the many reasons I will not make Aliyah is because I do not have the right to obtain a full civil marriage. Even if Israel is the safest place to openly practice Judaism, it can be much harder if you’re between secular (like me) or Orthodox. It’s been a spiritual experience here that America couldn’t provide me, but I’ve enjoyed being able to see Judaism everywhere and not be in the religious minority for once. Of course, being the religious minority in America can be nice since it means I can find transportation on Shabbat and eat bread during Passover, but I do treasure having had the chance to see Judaism as the majority for once. I have nothing but gratitude to those who fought for this land and allowed me the chance to be as Jewish as I wanted to be.

Israel let me be with men on my own time. I didn’t have a boyfriend in either of my high schools, in college or when I studied abroad. There were many factors, like being a Goody-Two-Shoes, growing up in a broken home, being afraid of intimacy and at one point, I was almost two-hundred pounds. I also worked in education, a field dominated by women. I had a boyfriend right after I graduated college and we were together for a month, but he and I were at different life stages and I felt nothing but relief when he dumped me. I was used to being single and didn’t think too much about it, until I got to London. DJ and the Dandelion were absolutely baffled that I was, to them at least, reasonably attractive, passionate about children and politics (even if we clashed over it) and had never even kissed a boy. I didn’t grow up with Disney, but I still wanted that Disney-esque perfect first kiss. The Dandelion tried setting me up with a guy who was a friend of her boyfriend, Aleks. The guy was perfectly nice, but I didn’t feel that spark. The Dandelion was much more quiet about it but DJ kept taunting me for “missing [my] chance.” A few weeks before we left London, we were at a pub in Camden. DJ dolled me up and got this guy named James to talk to me. When we wanted to leave the pub, DJ said we couldn’t leave until I kissed him and when she saw the look on my face, she said he’d kiss me back. I said I wanted to leave, but then she and the Dandelion kept saying I wouldn’t do it and that I was a chicken. I was done. I said, “Oh yeah? Watch me.” I yanked James away from his friends, put my hand on his shoulder and planted one right on his lips. He did kiss me back, and all the while I’m thinking of trying not to flip off DJ and the Dandelion as I hear them gasping behind me. We eventually left the pub and they were screaming their heads off. Even though James was nice and I didn’t regret the kiss, I wish I could’ve done it on my terms instead of doing it to shut DJ and the Dandelion up.

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*James and I, December 4th, 2010. At least Israel allowed me to be with men on my own terms!*

I already knew I had people back in America who were expecting me to come back engaged or married. I’m sure I’ve disappointed some by not coming back with someone on my arm. It’s not like I didn’t try, though. I’ve had boys, both American and Israeli, come into my life here. There was Avi, the one I kissed at Valium in Tel Aviv. Ofek came a little over a month later and he was the one I gave myself to. Even though he didn’t do what I asked him to do (and verbalizing desires is hard) and he was much too rough, I don’t regret my time with him. I did it because I wanted to and I felt mature enough. I was safe about it. I never heard from him again and I felt my heart rip in two, but that was when my Fellow, Josh told me that I had three days to be sad about it before I had to let it go. I’ve used this trick several times since then. The Texan came after Ofek. He at least did what I asked and was much gentler. Butterfly came just under a month later. I still don’t know why he chased after me when we were so different. He flirted with me for months before deciding to have some religious epiphany and said that he hoped we’d remain friends. I guess it’s more creative than “I’ll call you.” Mark was a drunken New Year’s Eve mistake. The final guy to enter my life, well, there is no word that can adequately describe him. I knew we could never be together, although in a different world with different circumstances, it would be easy to go down that road. We didn’t even like each other and he still treated me better than my ex-boyfriend did. Having to say goodbye to him the two times I saw him was incredibly hard. I would lay awake in my bed at night as I stared up at the ceiling while the tears came in quiet, steady streams. I didn’t want to get out bed in the hopes that staying there would prevent me from feeling sad. It didn’t work. I eventually moved on and know that even though nothing could ever bring us together, I wouldn’t change a thing. The weekend I got to spend with him was wonderful and perfect and I am forever grateful. He helped me more than he will ever know.

Israel showed me a community. I said in my “Community” post that I have received so many things from both the Jewish and non-Jewish world alike. I have gotten money, clothes, food, emotional support and love. I had a built-in family when mine was far away. The messages and comments I began to receive on Facebook telling me that I was doing a great thing, how much better I looked and how proud people were of me was astounding. I’ve been able to connect with people from both of my high schools and my college that I have not seen or spoken to in years and I hope they can see me as changed, just as I’m sure they have changed, too. For being a girl who never had much of a community, besides the political one I was involved in for a few years, I didn’t do too shabby. And I hope that all the people that helped me in any way that they could know how much I appreciate them.

I had the best students. I was blessed with the best students any teacher could want. I always felt so encouraged by even the tiniest bit of improvement from my students. I knew things would not change overnight, but to see them make even a small step in the right direction always gave me hope they would keep on making progress. Teaching is a thankless profession. So I’m glad that every day I got to hear a “thank you.”

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*Me with two of my favorite sixth graders! May 27th, 2014*

And finally, I cannot forget my Fellows. Our ramshackle building in Netanya has come to mean so much more to me than I ever would’ve expected over the past ten months. It was in this grotesque building that I really got to know my Fellows, began to talk about all the work I’ve done with children and finally let myself feel the pain that I have dealt with after growing up in a broken home and having bad experiences at my first high school, college and when I studied abroad.

My Fellows would give me advice and even though I would have a difficult time processing what they’d say, I know that I’ll always feel a special connection to these people. I didn’t expect to be getting hand-me-downs, having my hair and make-up done, sharing meals, watching movies or just being able to sit around in comfortable silence. My goal was to stay as quiet as possible. I had zero interest in going through the mess that was my past and dealing with the pain I had kept hidden inside. I learned from my barely-there friendships with my London cohort what it was like to go from being happy to extremely depressed. With my London cohort, I saw that letting myself be open and feeling consuming emotions, both good and bad, only lead to misery.

But then my Fellows came and changed everything.

There was just something about these twenty-somethings that made me strip down my walls centimeter by centimeter and I slowly let them in. Maybe it’s because I can only share so much of my struggles with the children in my care. Maybe it’s because I’m a chatterbox.

But somewhere, deep down inside of me, I know that it’s much more than that. Light shines out of my Fellows and it’s impossible to ignore. They see the good in people, believe in the good and can pay more attention to a rainbow than the storm that came before it. I’ve always had trouble doing that.

To see my Fellows be so happy despite their own struggles makes me think of them as the first flower coming out of the ground in spring. After getting to know the other twenty-five Fellows and using their guidance to help me steer through the traumas I’ve experienced in my life, I believe it when they say that things can be good.

There have been times where I’ve broken down in front of them, but over time, that stopped. I still work through my grief, filling posts on Tumblr and through this blog. Sometimes I don’t tell them if I’m upset, but they say that the only thing that matters is that I own my feelings.

To this day, I still feel anger at many people like my mother, my classmates from my elementary school, first high school and college, my London cohort and some of the less than desirable men who have entered into my life, both in America and in Israel. These topics make my stomach turn with anger, but I think I have made significant progress in becoming happier.

It isn’t perfect, but it is something. And I have my Fellows to thank for that.

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*Final group activity! June 15th, 2014*

So there you go. The beauty and the pain that have been happening over the last ten months. It has been a wild ride in this country. My life here has been difficult and messy on some days, but I still chose joy most days and am determined to not let the bad stuff override the good stuff. As the days got faster, I clung to my many blessings. The difficulties, like my awful apartment and Masa’s bad attempts at trying to make groups more “diverse” by picking under qualified males for spots instead of qualified females, at least seem easier to deal with when the light and the love are able to rise to the top.

I will be back to Israel someday. Sooner rather than later. I promise.