Recently Israel celebrated 72 years of independence and to honor that, I would like to share some of my personal thoughts and experiences about Israel. I did not know I was Jewish until I was about 7 years old. When I found out, I wanted nothing more than to attend Hebrew school. My father was not a fan of the liberal rabbi at the local Conservative temple, and so that door was closed. Years later, nearing bat mitzvah age, I kept asking to have a ceremony, maybe to prepare with private Hebrew lessons, anything. When I was about to turn 13, my parents decided to have my bat mitzvah on the Masada in Israel.
My family hired a tour guide and the tour guide connected us with a rabbi.
My first international trip ever at 13 was to Israel. I am 37 now, so not every memory from that trip is clear, but I do remember sitting at a cafe with my family in Tel Aviv, looking up at the advertisements and asking my parents ‘why are there so many tan and black people on the billboards.’ At 13, I had no idea that Jews are not white racially and that we come in a whole lot of skin colors. That was my first experience with the diversity of the Jewish people, in Israel.
I remember transliterating my haftorah portion on top of the Masada. The rabbi mentioned Anne Frank because I had just learned about her in school. But I was equally as fascinated with the story of the rebellion at Masada, of the heroism of these ‘ancient Jews’ – at the time not realizing that heroism runs in the blood of Jews. Can’t be weak to survive over 3500 years when (almost) everyone wants to kill you.
I remember trying really strong coffee in a Bedouin tent, riding my first camel and the camel’s hoof slipping a bit off of the side of the Judean mountain. But quickly regained composure and took in the gorgeous mountains. The sights and smells of the Mahane Yehuda shuk, the fresh fish in Akko, and I remember not liking hummus (my palate was clearly not developed at 13). I remember loving Tsfat (Safed) with all the mystical history, the art, the stone walls and stairs. And at 13, I fell in love with Jerusalem limestone. The way the sun hits that stone, with that serene golden glow, is truly unique.
Nearly 20 years went by before I visited Israel again. And in 2015, newly deeply aware of my homeland and all that it signifies not only to Jewish people but to the world at large, I came back. The feeling I felt when we landed in Tel Aviv was indescribable, it was like a long lingering hug from family, and in many ways it was.
I felt the history more clearly in Jerusalem, was moved to tears at Ammunition Hill where Israelis defeated the Jordanians in 1967 in one of the fiercest battles of that war, in which the reunification of the 3,000-year-old Jewish capital was at stake. I understood more about proximity to enemies while visiting the Gaza border and the bomb shelters in Sderot.
And I will always remember the best night out was in Jerusalem until almost 5am. It was my first time trying lemon drop shots.
I couldn’t stay away and so less than 2 months later, I came back to visit a new friend I had met on my Jewish National Fund trip. She is half Israeli and speaks Hebrew, so with her I had a much different even deeper experience. The first night meeting up, we went to one of the best Greek restaurants, owned by Greek Jews. For the next few days we zig zagged across half the country- from the gorgeous town of Zichron Ya’acov to a hotel in the Carmel forest area, up to Caesarea, and down to catch the sunset in Herzliya. Oh and the best zoo in the world has to be the one in Ramat Gan. It was on that trip that I began to feel the incredible warmth of Israelis- when my friend and I got stuck without gas coming down a mountain, we were helped rather quickly, when I got lost multiple times in Tel Aviv and then in Jaffa, it felt different than getting lost elsewhere.
In 2018, I came back with a Chabad group. I was younger than almost everyone by far, but it was one of my best trips to Israel. It was on that trip that I spiritually connected to Israel. As someone not religious, it was surprising. For the first time, I felt emotions at the Kotel. But what got to my very core on that trip was going to Judea and Samaria. I truly felt grounded standing on those hills, like I haven’t felt elsewhere. I could feel the history of my people and it was an extremely peaceful feeling- never mind that some of the hills around that area were ones where those not friendly to Jews live.
Our trip to the Atlit detention camp was jarring. Up to that point, I had no idea about detention camps built by the British. I read about the antisemitic White Papers but never knew about barbed wired camps. It was then that I started to understand the Jewish resistance and eventual overthrow of the British from our homeland. In Rehovot, visiting the Ayalon Institute, the famous underground bullet factory where members of the Haganah ended up making 2 million bullets over several years, further sowed the very real intrusion Jews were facing at the time of the British occupation.
We visited Hebron, before being there in person, I didn’t understand why so much military presence was being kept for such a small Jewish population in that area, but then finding out the history, that the heart of Israel’s ancestral history is in Judea and Samaria, that if Hebron goes, so does the Jewish soul.
In Jerusalem, out with an Israeli friend, after dinner we passed by the Menachem Begin Center. A flash of pride was felt as I knew the powerful speech Begin gave against Joe Biden in 1982- in which it begins “I am not a Jew with trembling knees. I am a proud Jew with 3700 years of civilized history.”
We celebrated soldiers in Latrun, and went up to the gorgeous grottoes of Rosh Hanikra on the border of Lebanon.
Less than a year later, I came back for one of my best friend’s wedding. Not only was the trip special because it was celebrating someone dear to me, but it was one of my more extended trips not on a tour to Israel. I cried at the wedding for how special the love was that we were celebrating, but also I felt even more connected because it was a wedding taking place in Israel. And it was on that trip that I was able to interact with a lot more Israelis, with many becoming friends.
What can I say about Israel? When it hurts, I feel pain. When it accomplishes so much, I feel immense pride.
As an American Jew, I truly am so proud that the Jews who live in Israel are strong, but not cold, are kind, but not naive. Thank you for guarding and further flourishing the Jewish homeland on behalf of all Jews worldwide. And to the non-Jews in Israel who are pro-Israel, I celebrate you as well.
Oh and since my first trip to Israel, I not only learned to like hummus, but love it and now know how to properly pronounce it. Happy 72nd Independence Day, Israel! To forever being free.