Next year in Jerusalem

Today, I leave Israel. I leave family, new friends, and inspiring campers. I leave war, hatred, chaos, and the inescapable racism that followed me throughout the entirety of my six weeks here in Israel. I leave behind what Israelis and Palestinians cannot. I feel guilty. How can I leave in the middle of a war? How can I go back to la-la land when I have a cousin fighting in Gaza? How can I leave all of this? This morning I woke up to an alert from Haaretz that a 72 hour humanitarian ceasefire is to take place. Finally! Now I can feel a little better about leaving: we’re making progress. As soon as I got out of the shower, I checked my phone to find a Red Alert, notifying me of rockets shot toward the south. Of course. More Red Alerts went off as I zipped my duffel, and again as I ate breakfast. Today was a day of goodbyes. But I wouldn’t call them goodbyes. Just byes. They didn’t feel good. Hugging each of my co-counselors and roommates who taught me so much about this conflict and the world was harder than I ever could have imagined. As much as I was their friend, I also felt like a naïve little sister at times— whose older sisters were eager to share their education and point of view with me. Who still valued my thoughts and my perspective although aware of my minimal education of the situation. Who wished me good luck with my first year of college as they become upperclassmen or grad school freshmen. The bond I have with the new friends I made through Project Harmony is really special. The friends I’ve made in the past six weeks are like no friends I have ever had. As I’ve said in past blog posts, this is the first time I’ve been able to have intellectually stimulating conversations in a social setting. These friends long for knowledge and answers. They encouraged me to explore new interests by attending museums and religious sites that I don’t identify with, and listening to speakers discuss the conflict (among other things). The friends I made through Project Harmony are each so unique and intelligent. I am so thankful to have met such a fantastic and inspiring group of people here. If it weren’t for them, my experience living in Jerusalem would be nowhere near as magical (for lack of a better word) as it was. I planned to spend my last day in Israel in Tel Aviv with my family. Sara and I took the bus together to Ra’anana, and saying goodbye was not good. It was just bye. I’m so lucky to have created a friendship here that I am confident will last the rest of my life. When Tamir, my cousin, picked me up, Sara and I hugged for one last time and headed our separate ways. I spent the rest of the day with the Davidis and the Linders. For lunch, Tamir treated me to one final shawarma pita sandwich. Definitely the perfect last lunch in Israel. In the afternoon, Miri picked me up to visit Nery, her mother. On the car ride there I asked her about my cousin and her nephew, Guy, who is fighting in Gaza. She told me that tomorrow, the whole family is getting together to say goodbye to Guy’s dad (and her brother), Razi, before he returns to working in California for the year. Everyone was so excited because Guy would be coming home for the weekend— except as soon as his bus got to Tel Aviv, he was told to turn around and come back to Gaza. Miri said this to me through tears, and I couldn’t help but wipe my own eyes. I gave her a hug. This is life in Israel. She told me to put on a smiling face to see her mother because she couldn’t see us upset. So I took a deep breath and I did. It was so nice finally getting to see Nery after seven years. She couldn’t believe how big I had gotten. Typical. I told her about how I am beginning Brandeis in the fall, and that while psychology was the plan, perhaps it is now peace and conflict studies. Or both. Or neither. I told her about Eli’s plan to take a semester off to travel to Southeast Asia, and I told her about Nathan’s internship in New York this past summer. It felt so comfortable being with her. She reminds me of my Bubbe. I saw some of her quilts that decorate her apartment and told her that the one she made for my family is the first thing you see when you walk into my house, hanging up in the front hall, illuminated by its very own light bulb. We talked and talked until I had to say goodbye. After visiting with Nery, Miri took me back to her home where I visited with her family. It was nice hanging out with them. “But what a terrible time to come to Israel,” they said to me apologetically. I countered that it was in fact the best time for me to come to Israel. The work I did in Jerusalem, working at an integrated Arab-Jewish summer camp that strongly values coexistence, would not have felt nearly as real nor as relevant had the conflict not been flaunted right in front of my face. My campers’ friendships and their ability to coexist with each other give me hope at such a time of despair. Within the Hand in Hand community, peace among Jews and Arabs is so close, but when I read the headlines, peace seems so incredibly far. However, in terms of coexistence, the positive growth I’ve witnessed this summer keeps me optimistic about Israel’s future. I went back to the Davidis’ home for dinner and a quick shower before my flight. Dinner was delicious— some kind of steak, mashed potatoes, and Israeli salad. While trying to fight back tears and my voice cracking, I said goodbye to Omri, Hadar, and Yael. I told them that I’ll be back very soon. Maybe next year. Maybe the year after. Definitely soon. Tamir then took me to the airport, and Inbar came along for the ride. I took my last breath of Israeli air and walked into the airport with Tamir and Inbar. They dropped me off at the first security line, where again I tried my best to be strong while saying goodbye. The intense security at Ben Gurion reminded me that Israel is a target for terrorists. Yes, this is obvious. But now it was really in my face. Once I finally got through security and to my gate, I plugged in my computer to start writing this final blog post. I couldn’t help but full on cry in the middle of the airport. Because as I thought about my experience here, I thought about my campers and how they coexist today, but one day they will be split up when the Jews go off to fight in the IDF and the Arabs do not. I imagined them joking around together and trying to push mine and Audrey’s buttons. At Project Harmony, my campers get along as if you’d never know about their backgrounds or the conflict. I thought about how it took me almost three weeks to figure out which of my campers were Jewish and which of my campers were Arab. I couldn’t tell. Working at Project Harmony was exhausting, but seeing positive results among my campers left me hopeful and eager to figure out how to facilitate more coexistence among Jews and Arabs living together in Israel. At the airport, I bought one last shoko, the best chocolate milk known to man, and walked onto the airplane. A Haaretz alert on my phone reminded me of the chaos still happening here in Israel. Obama strongly condemned the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier, Hadar Goldin. Right when I thought things could get better here, they got so much worse. I felt guilty. I have the luxury of leaving conflict, war, and hatred behind when it is real life for my campers and family in Israel. Again, I tried to fight back my tears, but this time I really couldn’t. I sat down in my seat on the airplane and cried. And cried. And cried. And again, I keep crying while reflecting on my time here and writing this last post. And now I recall a couple Hebrew phrases I can take away from my time in Israel this summer: כולנו ביחד בלי שניאות ופחד—all of us together without hatred and fear and יהודים וערבים מסורבים להיות אויבים—Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies. Next year in Jerusalem.

About the Author
Leah Susman serves as Regional Co-Chair for J Street U’s Northeast region and is a junior at Brandeis University.
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