The day in January that changed it all

15 years ago, today, I landed in Israel for the very first time.

January 9th, 2004 would be the day that changed the course of my life…in more ways than one.

I fell in love with Israel.

And I fell in love with a recently released Israeli soldier…whose birthday was on that same day when I landed in Israel; and met him for the very first time.

I wore this chunky ivory colored cable-knit scarf during my Birthright Israel trip.

In nearly every picture, it adorns my neck and in one picture, I wrapped it around my husband’s neck.

(Guess I gave that part of the story away)

January 9th is one of the most special days of the year: my 1st time in Israel. My (when our eyes first met..) anniversary and my husband’s birthday all in one.

On this January 9th, I find myself in Washington DC, an Emissary for the Jewish Agency for Israel and leading an incredible delegation of Jewish Agency Israel Fellows who serve over 100 Hillel’s across North America. My life has changed so much in the past 15 years and yet, as I scroll through the beautiful images of Birthright trips being led by the campus Shlichim, I still feel the same incredible emotion I felt all those years ago during my first trip to Israel; before she became home.

I fell in love with this incredible country.

I have told many people over the years that that first chapter is key: the love.

In every book, in every relationship: there are ups and downs.

There are moments where we feel anger, disappointment, sadness and then moments of pure joy, elation and indescribable love.

Thousands of young Jews have the opportunity each year to go on this incredible journey and discover Israel.

Does 10 days suffice for it all?

Of course not.

Israel is so many chapters; so many layers.

Depth. Intrigue. Tragedy. Triumph. Complexity. Beauty.

Israel and her people are many, many chapters and an experience such as the one I had, and so many others have been privileged to have, is the first step on to a journey that only we decide.

I am saddened by the notion that there are voices who criticize this experience; who believe it should be different. For individuals like me who could barely mutter the most basic of prayers in Hebrew, those 10 days were an experience we would never have had otherwise. I wanted my Jewish journey: I wanted to discover my own Jewish identity and what Israel meant in my life. I needed that experience.

I was also equally determined to learn the rest of the book…

And until this day, I continue to learn.

There are no secrets: Israel is an open book.

But as with any book, it is our responsibility to continue reading. To decide which chapters, resonate more with us as individuals. As with reading any book, we can not expect it to be read to or for us.

To the many young people experiencing Israel for the 1st time: I envy you.

The thought of touching the crevasses of the Western Wall for the very first time.

Looking out into the Mediterranean as the sun sets…

Eating Rugelach from Marzipan as the chocolate drips everywhere.

The cheesy picture with the camel.

The mud that you are not even sure you want to put on your face…

Even having a shopkeeper shout at you for the first time because you dare challenge his price…

Take in that first chapter.

Enjoy every second.

Allow yourself to fall in love.

Chapters 2, and 3, 4 and beyond are all waiting for you as well.

But as with every great love, nothing can replace or break those first moments of a bond that will last forever.

Happy January 9th. And Mazal tov my love…

About the Author
Michelle Rojas-Tal is the Jewish Agency's central Shlicha to Hillel International and Director of the Israel Fellows Program. The Jewish Agency for Israel Fellows program brings nearly 80 young emissaries to campuses across North America and close to a dozen across the globe to serve on college campuses. Michelle and her family are currently on Shlichut and living in the greater D.C. area from Jerusalem. She has devoted her life's work to Israel and the Jewish people.
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