When I was in college I came upon a profound revelation. I did not want to work in an office. Ever. This realization was a culmination of my experiences in the working world and the numerous offices that I had already inhabited prior to my fairly recent decision to complete my collegiate studies. The moment of this decision was a defining one and, although not entirely thought out at the time, it would place me on my current path. A path that eventually led to Israel.
Now, I know, you are most likely conjuring up images of the Jewish-American male with dreams of Aliyah. An IDF rifle in one hand, a shovel planting a JNF tree in the other, with a gaze fixed into the distance toward a bright Zionist future. Oops, almost forgot, with “Hatikvah” playing in the background, an oversized Israeli flag fluttering above and the most gorgeous sunset that you could ever imagine behind me. Yeah. Not exactly.
My path to Israel was a little bit different. You see, I had already been in the military. Both the US Navy and the US Army. Because of this, I’ve experienced things that a majority of people will only see in movies. I’ve had adventure, I’ve had travel, but I’ve also been given keen insight into the things that I consider important in life. Basically, what I’m trying to tell you is that I had developed a notion that “youthful awe” was something that I would, never again, experience.
This would turn out to be the farthest thing from the truth. It’s important though that I take a step back and give some background. I had said that I had gone back to school. To be precise, I had decided to finish college at the City College of New York and had been accepted at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership. I was going to become an anti-terrorism expert. I had the military experience and it seemed as if it would be a good fit both school and career-wise. Suffice it to say that the school and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on where we thought the world, as a whole, should be headed, but that is a subject for another article. What’s most important was the subconscious side-conversation that was playing out in my head.
A job in anti-terrorism is a concurrent existence of “bad days”. What I mean by this, is that in order to study and prevent the devious acts of violent extremist groups, you have to study and examine the devious acts of violent extremist groups. It is a litany of “bad days”. The “bad days” of others who experience loss, trauma and death. Their “bad days”, by association, would eventually become my “bad days”. That is an active motion of ruminative behavior. In other words, it makes for a difficult individual existence and you are not going to get invited to many more parties after you describe to a group of hapless listeners what you were working on that day.
Did I mention that I was a Jewish Studies minor at the time? Well, long story short, my minor became my major and as I discussed in a previous article Modern Hebrew was a component of the academic track. Because of this, I was on a collision course with the Modern State of Israel. Being totally honest, even with my pragmatic outlook, honed by years of military “need versus want” behaviors, the thought of Israel and its mythic persona in the Jewish psyche did give me goosebumps and I do have to admit to a feeling of “Wow” at the whole idea of an underdog Jewish State (cue “Hatikvah” background music).
Now to the point of the article, “what was I going to do with my life, that didn’t involve sitting in a cubicle, now that my career track in anti-terrorism was no longer desirable (or good for my long-term mental health)?” This was the million-dollar question. Ironically, Israel presented itself as a solution. After numerous courses on Jewish history that spanned the breadth and width of the Jewish experience all roads eventually led me to the Jewish State. My personal, internal pragmatism was slowly being whittled down by a resurgence of my long-lost “youthful awe”. The more that I learned, the more these effects snowballed. Biographies of Herzl and Ben Gurion drove me to study more advance Hebrew privately, outside of the structure of the classroom. I began to read what was in the hearts of great Jewish and Israeli writers and poets by consuming the works of Brenner, Bialik and countless others. I was also spending hours scouring YouTube for information and watched countless videos on everything from biographies on Natan Sharansky and The Jewish Agency to food tours around The Old City in Jerusalem. My academic and personal studies were having an unintended, but tremendous effect. Israel was allowing me to find a return to my “youthful awe” (again, cue “Hatikvah” background music).
This was when I made a decision that changed my life. I was going to be a part of Israel. I was going to be a part of its larger story. I was going to take a trip and spend one month learning Hebrew at the Ulpan program at Ben Gurion University. You need to understand that this was no small undertaking. I had a wife and a child, but through the graciousness of my family (and an increase in my credit card limit) I made the trip and have been forever changed. I saw a place that welcomed me. I was a part of the Jewish experience in way that I could never have imagined. I walked in a place that was built by Jewish hands, hands that held newborn children and also hands that, at times, covered weeping eyes.
The Jewish experience is rife with these dualities, but in Israel I was able to see something that I had never expected. I saw a transformation. I saw the supersession of hope and a positive fervor for life as it took precedence over the negative and traumatic that exists in our collective Jewish History. Don’t get me wrong, somber moments and histories are not ignored in Israel. They are respected and observed, but when a new day crests on the horizon, the people of Israel embrace it.
I have since returned to Ben Gurion University for another Ulpan session and I used that time to begin working on a way to document this phenomenon. For this I created the “12 Cities in Israel” Media Project. It started as a way for me to heal from a military life that left scars on both my body and my mind and eventually became a way to bring the joy that others have brought me, to the world. I love Israel. I see it as a place of hope, happiness and life. I see it as a way for the Jewish world to heal from all of our many scars. I see it as a home and as a place of redemption, regeneration and rejuvenation. My mission is to show this to everyone. My mission is to bring Israel, my Israel, to the world. (For the last time, cue “Hatikvah” background music.)