I am 27-years-old and I still have a Barbie doll. My Barbie isn’t just any Barbie; she is Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist in the Hunger Games trilogy. A gift from my sister, I have had my Barbie for almost three years.
As I have gotten older, I have started to see that I identify with Katniss in many ways. We both know what it’s like to have a mother mentally check out. We have both had to take care of our little sisters due to the aforementioned reason. We know what it’s like to scrounge for food. But our biggest similarity? We prefer to use our actions instead of our words when it comes to appreciating people or things. I think of my babysitting clients and how my gratitude for them means I will do housework without being asked or stay later even if I would rather run for the hills. I think of my friends and how I will always try and surprise them with a snack or flowers. But there is one thing that my actions have never seemed to be enough for, nor will my words ever be adequate enough to express my reverence.
And that’s for Israel.
I have gotten used to the higher-ups in the “real world” not viewing my actions for Israel as “enough” support worthy of a job in Jewish/Israel advocacy, various Jewish fellowships or for the right to attend big events like AIPAC. These rejections sting, but I have learned to roll with the punches. I tell myself that what I do is important—teaching my clients and their children (the majority of both not being Jewish) about Israel and Judaism generally. I attend Jewish/Israeli events when time and money allow. I go out of my way to buy products from Israel, ranging from my asthma inhaler to my coffee. I speak Hebrew to the children I care for, whether they’re Jewish or not. I talk to my clients and their children about my experiences in Israel. I follow pro-Israel pages on Facebook and comment when I can. I write this blog. But my work isn’t seen as enough. Oddly enough, it was never an American higher-up who made me realize that my actions will never be enough. It was an Israeli. And no matter what I do, he will never know about my veneration for Israel.
Two years ago today (see my post “Falling Tears Post Meitar”), I was headed out to Meitar with my host for the weekend, a young twenty-something Israeli. We were part of a three-part series called Mifgashim, a project under Masa Israel that allows the non-Israelis in Masa programs to meet Israelis in their age range. Having never found twenty-somethings in Netanya besides my cohort, I jumped at the chance to participate in the series, having heard so many good things about it.
The first of the three seminars was a nature weekend out in Tel Hai (see my post “Seven Months”) and while I enjoyed it, I was looking forward to the second seminar the most because it involved Shabbat hospitality and would be a smaller group, thus allowing for the chance to have more intimate conversations. I got to room with the girls I made friends with at the first Mifgashim seminar, Ava and Stephanie, and now that I had finally met my host (as opposed to a previous phone conversation), I was looking forward to a weekend of new experiences. The entire program was great and I was feeling extremely happy.
Of course, since having fun meant having a late night, I was exhausted by the time Friday morning rolled around. My host and I had to take three buses to get to Meitar, adding to my feelings of tiredness. We took the first bus from the Deborah Hotel in Tel Aviv to Arlozorov Station and then boarded the bus to Be’er Sheva. My host conversed with a friend while I took advantage of the WiFi on the bus.
I read an email from a babysitting client who had agreed to take me back after I would be coming back just under two months later and that made me smile. Once my host’s friend got off the bus, we finally got to chat. He asked me why I moved to Israel and I gave him the spiel I told everyone who asked me the same thing: I wanted to pay Israel back for her kindness towards the world, wanted to explore Israel on a program longer than Birthright, wanted to learn more about Judaism and so on. I was very pro-Israel and spoke giddily. This continued onto the third bus out to Meitar. When we got to a random bus stop out there, my host’s mother picked us up.
I cannot recall what my host’s mother asked me about as she drove him and I back to their house, but I was ranting about something. I know I wasn’t ranting about my school, its faculty, students or my friends, but it was definitely a rant about something because as soon as we entered the front gate to the house, my host said to me, “I don’t know if I need to get coffee or alcohol into you.” Running off of three hours of sleep, I told him coffee would be great.
His wonderful mother showed me a new way to make instant coffee, a method I still use two years later. After meeting my host’s middle brother and the brother’s girlfriend, my host and I headed out to walk his dog. Here was another instance of me ranting about something, most likely something about the deplorable conditions of my cohort’s apartment in Netanya or some domestic issues Masa Tlalim (then Israel Pathways) and Masa had refused to fix. And to be honest, I wanted the chance to rant to an Israeli since my program never allowed us to connect with Israelis (we had to do this on our own) and only brought us on seminars where we could connect with our partner cities under Israel Pathways—Beit She’an, Be’er Sheva and Kiryat Shmona. (Masa seminars, at least, let us meet people outside of Israel Pathways, but these events were not as frequent as meetings with Israel Pathways participants.) While I enjoyed the people in these cities, one can only rehash the details of a dilapidated apartment so many times to the same people. As we rounded a corner, my host said to me the six words that sounded so small and to this day, just fit into an empty place in my heart:
“You need to appreciate Israel more.”
I had no rebuttal.
Unlike what I had done with my cohort in Netanya in the beginning, I didn’t tell my host my life story and how it landed me in Israel because it cannot be explained over the course of a couple of days. I didn’t tell my host about not being raised Jewish and how I wanted to be in Israel so that I could discover my Jewish identity. I didn’t tell him about getting beaten by my drug addict mother for ten years and how Israel back during my 2012 Birthright trip helped me heal. I didn’t tell him about how bad my college experience was on a social level (never academic) or how difficult my study abroad experience in London was and that Israel was the antithesis to both of those things. I didn’t tell him about my wonderful Kol Voice Fellowship where I was learning to advocate for Israel better. I didn’t tell him that the month of April had been fraught with problems, like my students not being able to get back into the groove of learning after a long break for Passover, the many issues that Cassie and her dad faced when they visited me or that the washing machine in my apartment broke down yet again and my slumlord didn’t do a damn thing about it yet again.
Of course, despite these issues, my love for Israel was always in my heart, but I didn’t tell my host that if it were possible to grab onto a star every time I smiled in Israel, all of the evening sky would fit into the palm of my hand. And so instead of explaining myself, we finished walking the dog and went on to prepare dinner once we got back to the house. Since I had brushed off my host’s comment and hadn’t thought much of it, I focused on everything else around me—the camaraderie of a lovely family that treated me like one of their own, the delicious food and the fun my host and I would later have at the two random houses we went to late that night. The rest of the night passed with a lot of drinking.
I wasn’t feeling well the next morning, so my host forced me to eat and made me coffee. We had a nice family lunch and spent the day watching YouTube and random shows on TV. When it was time for me to go, I said goodbye to my host’s parents, telling that to have a good Memorial Day. I realized a second later what I had said and apologized profusely since Memorial Day in America is a big barbeque, but Yom HaZikaron is not a celebration. They understood what I meant, but I felt like an idiot.
My host drove me out to a bus stop in Be’er Sheva, saving me the time and expense of taking a bus from Meitar. We said our goodbyes in the car and I chatted with Ava and Stephanie at the bus stop. I then boarded the bus to the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv, but sitting on that bus was one of the hardest things I ever had to do in my entire Israel experience. I just stared out the window and didn’t even take advantage of the bus’s WiFi because I couldn’t concentrate. The bus ride to Netanya wasn’t much better.
When I got back to Netanya that evening, I tried to decompress by myself because in the morning my cohort would be making the long journey to Jerusalem for Yom HaZikaron. I texted my host to let him know I made it home safely and that I would see him at the final seminar. My cohort was supposed to go out to a nearby bar to celebrate the birthdays of myself and two other Fellows whose birthdays fell during the Passover vacation, but no one wanted to go. (We never did end up having a celebration.) Sleep was pitiful.
Masa had put on a ceremony for Yom HaZikaron out in Latrun. I sat next to my Fellow, Aliyah and we watched the sea of people in their white clothes stay silent. We learned the stories of those in the Israel Defense Forces who were killed over the past decade and my heart split in two. I had always appreciated the IDF but it was only then that I truly understood the truth behind my host’s words from two days before. Sitting in that stadium with the Masa participants from all around the world was a feeling of great joy mixed with heartache. In Israel, one can find one in the other. I had always been told that Israel did this to people, but I never comprehended it until that moment—the bliss of knowing that Israel exists as a haven for Jews juxtaposed against the sorrow of losing so many.
When I got back to my hotel room in Jerusalem later that night, I sent an email to Ilan, the head of the Mifgashim series, to let him know how much I enjoyed my experience. Of course, my words could not express my gratitude properly. I was back in Netanya the next night, but going through the motions was hard. I cried for days. When I finally saw my host at the final Mifgashim seminar at the end of the month, we barely spoke. I did ramble on an apology about how appearing cranky or ungrateful during our weekend was not my intention at all at that I really did enjoy my time in Meitar. My host said I had changed from a month ago and had given me a hug. I spent as much time as I could in my room at the hostel we were staying at, not really in the right frame of mind to be dealing with anyone without my voice cracking. By the time the seminar ended the next evening, I hightailed it out of the hostel after a hasty goodbye to my host and to my other friends (see my post “A Note To My Fellows”). I walked half an hour to a bus station since I had no real rush to get back to Netanya. I bumped into my Fellow, Shelly and she consoled me the entire way home after I spent the bus ride crying.
Life eventually returned back to some semblance of normal. I came back to America just under a month later and it was a week before Operation Protective Edge started. I was forced to see that friends from my second high school and my college held anti-Semitic views that I was not aware of before. I had remembered reading that enrollment in Masa programs spiked during the period—despite the war—because in Israel, Jews would not face the anti-Jewish hatred on the day-to-day basis that they were currently experiencing. Here I saw meaning in my host’s words again and realized just how important Israel was. Growing up without anti-Jewish hatred (I was hated for everything else under the sun, but never for being Jewish), I didn’t know why a Jewish state needed to exist. But now I do. My host may not believe it, but I do appreciate Israel.
I am grateful for Israel’s achievements in technology, medicine, agriculture, cuisine and disaster preparedness.
I am grateful for her history, a history that is rich and full of trials and triumphs.
I am grateful for Birthright Israel, the program that allowed me to see Israel for the first time, gave me my first steppingstone towards moving there and helped me heal some of the harms of my childhood.
I am grateful for Masa Israel, an organization that gave me the chance to live in Israel as a resident and introduced me to friends I still have today.
I am grateful that my while at first moving to Israel seemed impossible and then improbable, it was eventually inevitable.
I am grateful for Israel’s assistance to the world and for being the ONLY country that assisted Boston during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings (see my post “The Only Country That Helped Boston”).
I am grateful for a wonderful school that gave me the best teachers, faculty and students any teacher could want.
I am grateful that while Israel’s “peace partners” use their citizens to protect their weapons, Israel uses her weapons (and bomb shelters and sirens) to protect her citizens.
I am grateful for women like my host’s mother who was more of a mother to me in one weekend that my actual mother was my entire life; the woman offered to do my laundry for crying out loud.
I am grateful for Israel’s rainbow of Jews that come from all around the world. These Jews have shown me that there are so many different ways to be Jewish, and each one deserves a closer look.
Israel was, and will always be, my sunshine through the rain. When I was shy, Israel taught me to sing.
Tonight, I will attend my monthly discussion in Boston called israel360. It started in 2012 in Boston, not long after I returned from my Birthright trip. This convo salon has allowed me to learn about various aspects of Israeli culture and society and my great attendance record has always awarded me invites to exclusive events. This week Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) in Boston puts on their annual Hatikvah Mission, a project that allows Israelis from Haifa—Boston’s sister city—to visit Boston and to hear their stories. Tonight at israel360, I will hear from men and women in the IDF, a privilege I have had since I first started to attend events related to the Hatikvah Mission back in 2013. This year consists of ceremonies for Yom HaZikaron and parties for Yom Ha’atzmaut. I hope my actions show that I do appreciate Israel with every beat of my heart and every breath in my lungs.
When I staffed my first Birthright trip this past January (see my post “Babies Got Me Birthright”), my host was one of several people I contacted in the hopes of doing something as simple as grabbing a coffee. Nothing happened. I figured it was a long shot—I barely saw any friends at all—but I had hoped that by now he could see me as an ardent Israel supporter and hopefully not as some spoiled, American brat, something I saw too often when I lived in London in 2010. Even now, I wish I could be remembered as someone who did try to smile when my heart was broken and as someone who could make someone’s day a bit better, even if I couldn’t do that for myself.
But if I cannot be remembered for that, then I hope that someday my host, and the higher-ups, know just one thing: I would not have given up my city, state, country, job, a living wage, family, friends and native language, nor would I have moved to the world’s most misunderstood country—the country held to more double standards than any other country in the world—if I didn’t appreciate Israel…
At least a little bit.