It’s weird to think that I was in Israel this time last year (see my post “Babies Got Me Birthright”). I see pictures on my News Feed of the young adults who are there now on their own Birthright trips. They look like they are having a blast. Seeing their pictures makes me remember when I was a madricha last year, guiding American and Brazilian Jews around the place I once called home. A trip full of trials and tribulations that I would love to staff again if ever given the opportunity. I talk about my experience staffing to others—both the good and the bad—but lately it seems like it has been overshadowed by the difficulties I encountered from some of the sour grapes in my group. These grapes just wanted wine and to whine. They made me realize that my efforts in Israel advocacy—despite being in Israel herself—were not enough to make them appreciate her. Now I am doing my damn hardest to make sure Israel knows how much I love her, but sometimes it still feels fruitless.
I cannot fault all portions of the Birthright trip that I staffed last year. The first few days were wonderful, the nights even more so when I would chat with my participants and learn about their lives. As an educator by trade, it has always been my moral obligation to share what I know about the world with others. I told my participants about why I had moved to Israel for ten months through Masa Israel as an Israel Teaching Fellow in Netanya and that contrary to what my father thought, I was not going to Israel to escape something. I left Massachusetts for Israel in 2013 in order to travel the world and expand my horizons. Sometimes I thought I was running away, as this had been somewhat of an impetus as to why I had studied abroad in London for a semester in 2010. It was only in Israel that I realized I had done the complete opposite. I did not run away; I was running towards something. I believe that something is Israel advocacy. It was my 2014 Mifgashim host (see my posts “Falling Tears Post Meitar” and “Appreciating Israel”), who made me realize why I needed to get into this field. He said I needed to appreciate Israel more. I did not grasp the gravity of his words until it was Yom HaZikaron two days later and I went to a ceremony for it. Hearing the stories of those who had died defending Israel and the civilians who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time made me break. It was only then that I understood why Jews needed their own state. I now understood my host’s words. So why didn’t my sour grapes?
The trip had been halfway done by the time I completely broke down. It had been a fine morning and afternoon with jaunts on the coast and gallivanting around Jaffa. It was a bit chilly, but the sunset was there in the late afternoon. My participants’ eyes were trapped in a bubble of color and light. The sun was playing with the sky, reflecting beautiful peach brush strokes with dashes of violet and pink onto the shimmering water. The sunsets I would often see in Israel when I lived there would make me feel so blessed. I tried to remember those moments, combined with the joy of going to see Inoy, an Israeli friend, later that evening.
After having dinner at the kibbutz, a participant did my hair, I put on a dash of makeup and headed for the bus. The only conversations I heard on the bus as we made our way to Tel Aviv were how excited everyone was to drink. Since many of my American participants were under twenty-one, I understood their excitement, but seemed stunned that that was the only thing they cared about. It was like being in London all over again and seeing the Americans in my cohort go crazy because they could legally purchase alcohol. I tried to shut down the memories and hightailed it to Max Brenner as soon as I could get off of the bus. I waited outside for Inoy and when he arrived, we went inside Max Brenner and ordered milkshakes. He asked me how the trip was going. I looked over my shoulder and saw two of my participants. I looked away from them and then down at my milkshake. And then I bawled like a baby as my eyeliner ran down my cheeks.
“What’s the matter?” Inoy said with a concerned look on his face.
I began to explain as best that I could that I loved the families who employed me, even though they could never get me a job in Israel advocacy and I was jealous of my Masa comrades with said jobs, that I was spending what little money I had on extra food and souvenirs in Israel in order to tell the dippity-do-heads who support BDS to shove it, that I missed my students in Netanya, that I wanted to spend more time in Israel and that I was not going to be able to meet up with my other Israeli friends, in addition to American ones. I cried over not seeing my Mifgashim as well. He was hardly the only person I reached out to that did not respond, but it still hurt. I don’t know what I was expecting, though. That he would come to Jerusalem during my downtime and spend the night chatting with me? That the previous 19 months of trying my hardest to show my Mifgashim host—and the world—that I love Israel and the pain that comes with that would miraculously dissolve away like Splenda in a cup of hot coffee? Even though I knew that the chances of seeing my Mifgashim host were pretty low, I couldn’t deny my disappointment. I tried to plaster on a smile, but I am a horrible actress.
Inoy gave me a napkin and I wiped my face. A deep breath was not as calming as I thought, but after I went on about the sour grapes under my care and how they were so ungrateful about the incredible gift that is Birthright—an organization I continue to support via financially and social media—the breath was like a balm that soothed my weary soul. Maybe this was how my Mifgashim host saw me back in 2014 when I told him about the squalor of my apartment in Netanya or when my teaching partner played hooky and how I would cover for him. It never diminished my love for Israel—Hell, when my Mifgashim host and I were first getting to know each other, I was practically bouncing up and down on the bus when I told him why I had moved there—but maybe the struggles that were thrown at me and my cohort were too much for someone who lives in a country full of threats that Americans—and most of the world—cannot comprehend. Now I was on the outside looking in and I had no chance to tell my Mifgashim host, once again, that I was sorry if he thought I was a brat. I think it was important for Inoy to hear that because saying I love Israel is different to an American versus an Israeli. He reassured me that he understood I loved Israel. Talking about this issue to an Israeli instead of keeping it bottled up and trying to throw it into the sea of forgetfulness helped my soul considerably. I at least recognized that both hope and sorry make me human and tears can be words that my heart cannot say.
Still, I hated Inoy seeing me down in all my despicable vulnerability.
The conversation eventually got lighter and I started to feel better. When the check came, I started to pull out my wallet but Inoy shooed my hand away and paid for both of our milkshakes. I have spent so much of my life taking care of everyone else that I never really have anyone take care of me. This was so kind and unexpected. But I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised as I have always been able to depend on the Jewish community—at home and abroad—to make me happy. We departed Max Brenner, chatted for a bit and then I waited for Inoy to catch a sherut back home. We hugged and then I made my way to an AM:PM and bought three of my favorite yogurts that I used to eat for breakfast almost every day when I lived in Israel. As I wandered down the street, I wondered what I looked like to the people nearby. While I doubt that I looked presentable at that point and that my conversation with Inoy had been hard, it seems as if the hardest things in life usually mean the most. It was hard to uproot my life in Massachusetts to move to Israel, a country I had only spent 10 days in prior to the move. If it had been easy, everyone would do it, right? It also was not easy to bare the depths of my soul to Inoy. But I did. Any psychologist would have told me to talk about my pain, but I decided to do it for myself. And you know what? I was glad that I did. I got a lot off of my chest and, for the interim, I was in a better place. Now don’t get me wrong, one conversation was not going to fix any of my struggles, but it was a start.
I had passed a bar on my way down to the designated meeting spot and saw a few of my (good) participants sitting at an outside table and laughing over their drinks. They were beaming when they saw me and asked me to join them. As a madricha, I was not allowed to drink—and I would have been a depressing, insecure drunk instead of a bubbly and fun one if I could have been drinking—but I did smile and wave and went on my way. I was reminded to see the good in the face of hardship.
When I got back to the room at the kibbutz that I was sharing with my co-madricha, Haley, I went into the bathroom and was horrified at my expression—splotchy cheeks adorned with eyeliner and bits of eye shadow, bloodshot eyes rimmed by puffy, dark circles, and a runny nose. Knowing that Inoy—and passerbys—saw me like this only exacerbated my embarrassment. I hopped in the shower, but I hardly felt refreshed since the hot water was not working. I only looked microscopically more decent, but I still managed to get into bed and read. Haley knew something was wrong and the air felt a bit awkward since I refused to cry again. It was not entirely uncomfortable, though. I was all talked out after unloading everything onto Inoy earlier that night and Haley seemed to understand that. For that—and her equal amount of cynicism directed at the sour grapes—I was grateful.
The trip continued. It would get dark early and the days would seem over before dinner. And the days seemed so full of things; the winter season seemed so full of stuff.
But there was always room.
There was always time to write and sing. There was time for iced coffee and stories, time to pet the cats, time to listen to music. Time to stop and pick a flower, eat a Krembo, smile at someone cute, admire architecture, learn history.
There was always time.
This was a note to myself. A reminder of the good, as I stood listening to the participant who said she would not get her next dose of rabies shots after getting bit by a feral cat or when another was agitated that he was not allowed to smoke weed.
There was always room for dessert, even after a huge dinner, even if the world felt like it was closing in on me.
There was always room.
Whenever the hardships of this trip brought me down, I would listen to the (good) participants as they were busy using their iPhones to take their selfies or marvel at their smiles when they dug into new foods. My time with these young adults felt more valuable than anything they might ever discover.
I was reminded of how it’s easier to differentiate the daily triumphs and joys from the hard places and tears by not being at home. While there was not one day where everyone got onto the bus on time or someone would cease smoking a cigarette in my face and aggravate my asthma, there were a myriad of golden nuggets packed into the adventure:
—Two of the American women having a Bat Mitzvah on top of Masada.
—Having the Brazilians attempt to teach the Americans and Israelis Portuguese.
—Screaming “Mazal Tov!” while in Jaffa at a couple in their wedding attire.
—Listening to which groups screamed the loudest at the Mega Event as their country’s name was called out.
—Floating in the Dead Sea.
—Picking oranges off of a tree in Jerusalem.
—Admiring the colors of paper shekels that American dollars do not have.
—Riding camels in the sunshine.
Israel makes awesome look easy. But that is because Israel is the light. I recognize that Israel is the light. I always feel like I am balancing on the ledge of a gloomy and steep well. With high heels. In the dark. But with Israel, there is light. She is the light. Grabbing onto my hand, she pulls me back to safety, and I am back on solid ground.
I did have participants who asked me how to come back to Israel. They seemed to fall in love with her. I consider that a success. But I still wonder how I failed to showcase how wonderful she is and why the Jews need her to the sour grapes. I have a lot of work to do.
Which is why I recently completed an application for a graduate degree in Communication with a focus on Public Relations and Advertising. I have come to accept after five and a half years since I graduated college that my bachelor’s degree is not enough to get me a job in Israel advocacy. And since I work with children, the people who are neither voters nor donors, I need to learn how to speak to adults.
Coming home from staffing my trip last year, I saw that I needed to get back to work, not just as the owner of my babysitting business, but at the gym and in talking about Israel to the people I most often see. As I close my eyes gently towards the heartbeats that have come after the start of 2017, I can already hear the ways it is leading to joy. When I hear the older children I take care of tell me that they think of me whenever they see a Star of David somewhere or when the mom of my favorite two-year-old tells me how “scary” it is how much she enjoyed the Krembo I gave her, I can feel hope pulling me forward, even if it is a small step. Moments like these remind me that peace is never as far away as I think.
Upon the advice of a Masa comrade who told me to join a Jewish group in my neighborhood (and throughout a few other places in Massachusetts) called LEADS after not getting a Jewish Fellowship that I wanted in 2015, I began meeting with my group this past Fall. They were nothing short of wonderful during all of our sessions. I met people in my neighborhood. I was able to talk to adults after always dealing with children. I could talk about Judaism and Israel and learn how to act around men, something not easy to do when I work in a female-dominated profession. It was also great to be around men who would shield me from J. (see my post “An Unwanted Sock”), since he was a member of a different LEADS group and I still had to see him when the groups would merge. Sometimes the brows on my LEADS comrades would furrow, but their eyes always emitted a warmth that assured me they could feel the dilemmas buried in my soul. They never sugarcoat things. They are wonderful, those Jews.
I begin this week the first of six sessions for Boston’s branch of Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) new Israel Advocacy Training Program. I am going into this with an open mind and heart, just as I did when I did Birthright in 2012. Opportunities like this make me feel like I can conquer the world, that I can right wrong perceptions about Israel, even douse a burning fire. What a boon it would be to announce to this new group of Jews an acceptance to a graduate program that would, I hope, lead me to a job in Israel advocacy.
I hope that, one day, I can convey to the world that when I went to Israel for the first time in 2012, I found myself feeling like I had been missing her so badly, even though I was meeting her for the first time. It’s hard to believe that I moved there just over a year later, despite a difficult time being abroad before and not having much of a Jewish background. I worry that I have not always paid enough attention to Israel and what she goes through. I barely have time to look presentable in the morning before dashing off to work and teaching the yeledim about the Holy Land as best that I can.
But what I do take note of, all the time, is Israel’s extraordinariness. She is amazing.
I deeply appreciate every bit of Israel’s spirit. And I love her more than words.
Israel made me so something that I never thought I would do.
She made me smile.
As I spend the next six weeks learning how to better advocate for Israel, I hope that I can gain the skills to turn sour grapes and other disbelievers into Israel lovers and appreciators. I hope someday I can cry tears of joy to them and not tears of sadness in Tel Aviv over a chocolate milkshake.
And I have every intention of never allowing the sour grapes, the disbelievers, my Mifgashim host, and the world, to doubt my love for Israel ever again.