I’ll never forget the first time I saw the land of Israel. It was from the tiny, smudged window of a Belgian airplane, and it was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. As we flew in low over the gorgeous landscape, I saw vast cities, lush forests and a desert that seemed to be in full bloom. I felt an incredible sense of pride begin to build, both in what my people had achieved by forming the state of Israel, in myself simply for being a Jew. I also began to feel joy, which was very out of place in the cramped row of seats I was stuck in. I had never been moved to tears before, but as the plane started it’s landing, I couldn’t help myself. The moment the plane landed, there was a profound sense of relief, not because I don’t like flying (I don’t), but because I felt like my soul was where it belonged. I had never given serious thought to souls, or ancestral memories, or God before, so it was very out of place. Whatever the cause was, I felt right. I felt “holy”.
I am a Jew. That seems to be a fairly straightforward sentence. I’ve said it plenty of times throughout my life, but I never knew what it meant to me until I visited home for the first time. I learned what it meant to me when I came to Israel. I grew up in a Jewish household, in a way that is similar to many diaspora Jews. Like many American Jewish children, I opened presents on Chanukah, complained about going to the synagogue twice a year, and had a Bar Mitzvah. That was pretty much it, that was where my personal relationship with Judaism seemed to end. My mother gave me the exposure to my Jewish heritage, but a combination of American secular culture, anti-Semitic encounters, and teenage rebellion led me to distance myself from it. That trend continued until I was twenty four. My mother had been encouraging me to go on a Birthright trip for several years, and I finally decided that I should go, before it was too late. I applied, received my approval, and began to prepare for my trip. I had no idea at that time that I would be returning home as a different person. From the minute I got to JFK Airport in New York and started meeting my tour group, I knew the trip would be something special. I felt immediately at ease with this group of strangers. We were all different, but we all had one thing in common. We were Jews. That was when I began to feel as if there was a part of my identity that had been asleep. Eleven hours later, on that cramped airplane, somewhere over Israel, it woke up.
I dove headfirst into Judaism during the time I was in Israel. It seemed like I was being called back to a heritage I’d previously written off. I ended up staying there for an extra three weeks. I had the option to extend my stay after Birthright ended, and I jumped at the chance. I felt connected to my heritage, and to God, who’s existence I had always questioned. I don’t know how else to explain the intense senses of righteousness and inspiration I had while in Israel other than to credit it to a higher power. Another “-ism” started to resonate with me as well. Zionism. There are jokes that people make about different types of people you’ll meet on a Birthright trip. One of those tropes is the “24 hour zionist”. Most of you who have been on Birthright have met this particular character. For those of you who aren’t familiar though, the 24 hour zionist is the person on the trip who arrives with little to no opinion of Israel, and within a day of landing, becomes thoroughly obsessed with supporting Israel, and the Jewish right to self-determination. I was that guy on my trip. The minute I got access to wi-fi, I followed every pro-Israel page on Facebook and started sharing the absolute joy and wonder I was feeling in the Jewish homeland. At the end of the month, when it was time for me to go back to America, I didn’t feel like I was going home. I cried when the plane took off, I just could’t help it. As the plane moved further and further from Israel, it seemed like I was being pulled away from where I belonged, and where I felt complete.
Since I got back to America, I’ve devoted a lot of my time to learning Torah, studying Hebrew, reading Jewish and Middle Eastern history and spending time at my local Chabad house in Philadelphia. I have plenty of great things to say about Chabad, and especially my rabbi, who has been absolutely incredible in helping me on my Jewish journey. I brought a few new habits home from Israel as well. I started putting on tefillin in the morning, and wearing my kippa every day. Yiddish has become a much more frequent part of my vocabulary and I’ve started choosing Torah over tequila. Instead of partying on Friday nights, I go to Shabbat dinner. My entire life’s priorities have shifted, and I have been blessed by that fact. I miss the land of Israel every day. I miss the people, the food, the beauty of the land itself, and being surrounded by ancient history. I miss being surrounded by Judaism and by people that understand what it is to be a Jew. I’ve made it my goal to do everything that I can to support the land that God promised to the Jewish people, and to strengthening the Jewish community and continuity in America. That’s why I am writing this now, and why I will continue to write about Jewish issues, history, zionist politics and the state of Israel. I don’t know when I’ll be back to Israel, but I know it will happen, and someday, my trip will be one way. My body came back to the United States, but my heart and soul will always be in the land of Israel.