When I was 19 years old, I was a sophomore at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I had begun my Jewish journey the previous year, as a way of meeting new friends. However, the more I began to connect with my heritage, the more I realized that the premise of Judaism matched with my own philosophy of life. It furthermore helped me deepen my understanding of the world around me.
That year, I developed a profound relationship with the Director of Jewish Life and Hillel Director at Muhlenberg, Patti Mittleman, an extraordinarily generous, shrewd woman. Noticing my growing connection to Jewish life, she told me I should consider applying for Birthright, which she explained was a free pilgrimage to Israel, sponsored in part by the Israeli government.
At the time, my conception of Israel was of a land torn apart by war, based upon what I had seen on the news. I thought that rockets and bombs were falling constantly on Israeli cities and villages. Images of the Second Intifada on ABC World News Tonight in the early 2000s flashed across my mind.
Confused about why Patti would suggest I go someplace so dangerous, I declined her offer. But anyone who knew Patti well knows that she would never give up, once her mind was set. She came at me from various different directions over the next several months, showing me pictures and pamphlets, none of which convinced me.
One day, coming to the conclusion that she had to work a little harder than she expected, Patti asked me to come into her office at Hillel with her. She sat down way across the room, on the arm of the couch, and I sat on the other couch. She then said something that has stayed with me all these years: “Ryan, I am the most neurotic Jewish mother in the world. I have two sons, both in their late 20s. When they travel anywhere in the world, I don’t eat, I don’t sleep, and I don’t take a deep breath until I know they’re home safely. But when they go to Israel, I don’t worry about them.”
I sat there for a moment, stunned. I could feel my brain swirling around my skull, trying to rationalize the longstanding preconceptions I had about Israel with what Patti had just said. I thought to myself, Patti is one of the most admirable, honorable, trustworthy people I’ve ever met. She wouldn’t lie to me. And then the kicker: Maybe I’m wrong.
After discussing it with my parents, I decided to give it a shot. I stepped out onto the metaphorical wire and registered for Birthright, taking a leap of faith unlike anything I had ever done before. Unsurprisingly, I was accepted. Then the nerves set in.
We went to Philadelphia International Airport on the morning of January 4, 2012. Patti was there to see us off. Before we left the check-in area to go to the terminal, Patti made a short speech to us, giving us advice and encouraging us to soak up all that Israel had to offer. I was still scared. But I went ahead without any sign of it, because I knew I had to be brave.
Once the plane began making its final descent into Ben-Gurion International Airport, I girded my loins and began to wonder what the experience would be like. The plane touched down. We taxied to the terminal. Once we had found our carry-on luggage and began to walk out of the plane, our legs like Jell-O after such a long journey, I hurried toward the nearest window. I looked out over what one of my friends told me was the skyline of Tel Aviv.
There were no rockets. There were no bombs. There was no fire blazing. The sun was out, and the city was gorgeous. I knew then that these ten days signaled a shift in my outlook, not only on Israel, but on the entire world. In that instant, I realized that what I had seen on the news was wrong. And that realization became increasingly stark with each passing day of our pilgrimage in Israel. From my bar mitzvah ceremony at the Western Wall, to our visits to the Sea of Galilee, Masada, the Dead Sea, and beyond, I saw a country of people who were living their lives as normal. The impending danger of living in such a precarious neighborhood did not worry them in the least. They were doing what they wanted to do, living the lives they wanted to live. Israel was not a victim. Israel was the master of its own destiny.
Once I arrived home from our Birthright trip, I knew that I had to help propagate the message that I had been fed misinformation for years about Israel. I knew that if that delusion had affected me, it affected countless others as well. Many who had never visited Israel before viewed Israel as an aggressor, a warmonger, a state not deserving to exist. I devoured literature from all sides of the political spectrum, as well as literature on Judaism. I knew instinctively that, if I were going to advocate for Israel, I would need to be the most well-informed person in any room. I would have to be able to anticipate anything that my adversaries could throw at me and be prepared with a retort. In the years since, my intuition proved prescient. I have been a pro-Israel advocate for nine years, and I have never had to reach for the right words to use in response to an enemy of Israel. I am a proud, unabashed, stalwart Zionist, and I thank G-d for putting Patti in my path to inspire me to pursue this avenue.
Later, I lived in Israel for a summer three years later. That was the last time I visited. But a piece of my heart and soul remain in Israel. I feel that a piece of my identity fit into place when I stepped off the plane in Israel. May it be so for every person who visits Israel.
And may the memory of Patti Mittleman (1959-2018) be for a blessing, now and forever.