How Israel Changed Me

At the airport, before we got on the plane, I talked to the women I’d be travelling with, through the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, about the itinerary, specifically, the day we were supposed to dance at the Kotel. I told one woman there was no way I would be dancing. That wasn’t me. Fifteen minutes after we arrived at Ben Gurion, I found myself dancing in the airport. That night, after eating dinner beside the Sea of Galilee, I climbed up onto a stage with a bunch of women I’d never met before, and danced (no alcohol was involved). By the time the night ended, I had a feeling this trip was going to affect me in ways I never expected.

It was my first time in Israel, and in the months leading up to our departure, some people told me it was special, that it would be a life-changing experience, while others looked at me like I was crazy, and asked why I wanted to go to such a dangerous place. I won’t lie. I was a little nervous about the idea of soldiers walking around with machine guns, but I had been to Northern Ireland during a tumultuous time, where tanks drove around the streets with armed soldiers, and survived. And, to be perfectly honest, as a writer used to being alone during the day, I was more worried about being with hundreds of women, 24/7.

The trip was everything I hoped it would be, in terms of seeing Israel from north to south, standing on the top of Masada and seeing the spot where Jews took their own lives to avoid being captured by the Romans, sitting in Independence Hall and listening to David Ben Gurion’s speech declaring Israel as a free state, floating in the Dead Sea, which is receding by three metres a year, and taking in Yad Vashem, where my relatives’ names are recorded as murdered during the Holocaust.

I was enchanted by Jerusalem, the old city, in particular. Walking along the cobblestone streets, through Mamilla and the Jaffa Gate, I was struck by the beauty of the Jerusalem stone, and the thousands of years of history beneath my feet. I was also surprised, seeing street signs in three languages—Hebrew, Arabic, and English, and by the size of the quarters in the old city. The Muslim quarter being the largest and the Jewish being quite small in comparison. And I heard the Muslim call to prayer, often, every day; it blended into the ordinary sounds of the city like car horns. What I’m trying to say, is that I was not expecting the harmony between faiths that I witnessed. Granted, there are a lot of problems, and Israel is not perfect, but I saw the potential for peace.

Our trip was more than a sightseeing excursion; every morning, we listened to passionate, knowledgeable speakers, most of whom were Orthodox. Some of the things they said were interesting, but don’t fit into my world here in Oakville. Other messages continue to resonate with me today. Especially this: “You have to think about the person you want to be when you’re 80, and start doing things to get there now.” Too often, we live in reaction rather than make decisions that propel us where we want to go. I want to live life intentionally, to do things that frighten me, to try and fail. This is one of the most powerful ideas I took home with me. The journey is the goal.

Another gem: Judaism teaches us that every person was put here for a purpose. As a writer whose first three books are inspired by my grandmother, who kept her Judaism a secret, I’ve struggled with this question: how would my grandmother feel about me sharing her secret through my books? As I listened to the speech about having a purpose, about wanting our children to be happy doing something purposeful, about paradise moments when something we’re doing makes us feel good, I knew my purpose is to record people’s stories within history, to ensure future generations never forget. It was a powerful moment for me.

Watching a group of Russian women get Hebrew names, for the first time, was one of the most moving experiences for me. Hearing their stories, knowing they never received Hebrew names because their parents grew up in the Soviet era, where it was a crime to be Jewish, and seeing their faces, glowing with pride as they received their names while the sun set over Ber Ereshit, was unforgettable. During this moving ceremony, Nili, the presenter, said that Hebrew names were the essence of the person. “It’s said that parents have divine inspiration in naming you.” I thought about my own name, Shelly, and how I’m named after my mother’s mother, Rachel, who went by Shelly. My Hebrew name is Rachel, which, in my mind, completes a circle that was meant to be. Having my grandmother’s name, and making the choice to reclaim my roots, and going on the Israel trip…it is all part of the journey that was intended for me.

The Kotel was packed when we arrived. The sun was setting and a purple glow hung over Jerusalem. We were on the women’s side, and could hear the resonant voices of the men, on the other side. The women in our group started forming a circle. Someone grabbed my hands and I was part of the group. We started singing and dancing, and it felt natural and wonderful and I realized that maybe dancing in public was part of me, after all.

About the Author
Shelly Sanders is the Canadian author of the award winning Rachel Trilogy (Second Story Press), inspired by her grandmother's escape from a Russian pogrom. She is a Jewish Book Council Author, and has toured Canada and the U.S. with her books. Shelly was also a journalist for 20 years, with articles in the Toronto Star, Maclean's magazine, Canadian Living, and Reader's Digest. She is represented by Amy Tipton, Signature Lit, and is currently working on a novel about Rumbula, where some of her ancestors were killed.
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