You came back from an amazing trip in Israel. Birthright, your 8th grade trip, a gap year program, JWRP- whatever it was, it was incredible. You’d heard Israel was beautiful, somewhere you needed to see, but you didn’t quite expect it to have this effect on you. You didn’t expect to be grabbed by spirituality, by the sense of family, by how relevant and meaningful Judaism was to you. You came home with a lightness in your step, almost floating, finding yourself envisioning a Jewish home and committing to learn more about Judaism.
And then some time passed and most of that excited spirituality became more or less a memory that you return to with fondness. After all, it’s not realistic to walk around aglow all the time, it was bound to wear off. But you do feel a certain sense of sadness when you remember that time and how passionate you felt about Israel, about being Jewish, about being connected and how wonderful it felt to be so inspired. It doesn’t make a difference how observant you are or aren’t- we all go through this experience of returning from the high and the challenge of how to keep it in our lives.
How can we take some of that inspiration from Israel and make it stick?
Step 1: As Seen In Tzfat- you have to want it
Everyone talks about the mysticism of Tzfat, about the beauty and spirituality but the truth about Tzfat is this: A visit gives you a window but the true way to experience Tzfat is by spending Shabbat there.
I was blessed to spend a Shabbat in Tzfat with my 8th grade this month. On Friday night, we arrived at a synagogue where there were chairs set up outside; that should have been a hint that it was going to be crowded. But I am nothing if not determined and I told my girls that we were going to get inside. As it seems, all Jewish women are determined. There was no way we were getting in. It was so crowded in fact, that even when 13 women exited the room and we tried to get in, we still couldn’t get inside. In the midst of it all the crowds, a woman managed to squeeze her head out of the room and ask a group of women standing near the strollers if her baby in its stroller was OK and upon hearing he was, she popped her head back in. That was how coveted a spot in this synagogue was.
The only time I’ve ever heard of such crowds is Black Friday when an electronic device is 40 percent off and people wake up at 4am to wait on lines. Or when there’s an amazing concert that’s sold out or a World Series game and with no way to get inside, people wait outside to get a glimpse of the action. In Tzfat, a meaningful Tefilla is like a sold-out concert with people willing to battle stuffy rooms or the cold outside as they crowd by the door for a chance for their souls to connect to G-d. That’s Tzfat; a place where people are yearning for growth.
We don’t grow unless we yearn for it. Growth of any kind- in spirituality, in marriage, at work, or as a parent- will not happen without this key element.
Step 2: For a great hike, you have to sweat
But yearning isn’t enough. I’ve participated on and led many trips to Israel and for me, the key difference between a trip that is wonderful and a trip that is life-changing is hiking (excessive walking also counts). Travailing the land from North to South on a comfortable air-conditioned bus is wonderful but there is nothing as exhilarating as exploring your inheritance with your sweat and aching feet. To climb a mountain in Israel and reach the top and realize that the beautiful valley below and all of its surrounding is MINE, is the most powerful feeling- and the most connected feeling in the world.
In life, we recognize it to be true that we are connected most with what we work for. A business we build from the ground is far more important to us than the business we buy or work for. A glowing moment in a marriage which came as a result of our hard work in keeping our mouth closed about a minor annoyance, is all the more rewarding.
So too, with Jewish growth. So often, people come to me and tell me to reach out to a certain person because they love Judaism and are so interested in growth. And we do. And many people are very interested. But what we see is that those that climb spiritual ladders are those that are willing to work hard on that ascent. It requires sacrifice and a strong will.
A teacher of mine once said that life is like an escalator; either you’re going up or you’re going down but you never stay stagnant. Growth requires taking a step forward, standing up against outside pressure when not everyone is doing what you are and battling that inner voice that tells you to take an easier path. As it is often said, growth is not for the faint of heart. To progress on the journey, you have to be willing to hike. As Thomas Edison said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration”. The same goes for religious growth.
Step 3: Be Israeli
No one will tell you like it is like an Israeli. On my recent trip to Israel, we went for a brief visit to a spa by the Dead Sea. Our very Israeli bus driver accompanied us and heard as I told my students that some people in the dressing room may be walking around undressed and that they shouldn’t point, because at the very least, one day, they may look like that! Then the bus driver actually started pointing out obese people. I told him it wasn’t nice or polite but he told me that in Israel, no one (at least, not the men) find it offensive; it’s a fact when you’re overweight. I don’t know if this is true (and I certainly would never do this) but as he pointed out different men, none of them seemed offended.
In order to grow, we need to look in the mirror and be honest with ourselves. Not about our weight, but about something more important than that: are we happy with who we are? Do we find our lives as meaningful as they could be? Could we be doing more? Are we really too tired, too busy, etc. or are those excuses for taking an easier route rather than working on something that will propel our spiritual growth?
Without being honest with ourselves, we will never realize our true potential.
Step 4: Know this: It’s worth it
But we lead busy lives and we are working hard enough. Maybe we just don’t have the energy to do something else. Maybe we just don’t have the time right now. Is it so important?
You go to Israel and you sense the answer is yes.
You see the cars stop at the siren on Israel’s Memorial Day and you see the pain in the eyes of every Israeli and you suddenly feel that the loss of every Israeli, is a personal loss for every Jew. You visit Har Herzl and you hear the story of Roi Klein- the soldier who jumped on a grenade during the Second Lebanon War to save his entire brigade, screaming Shema Yisrael just before it exploded and you know that in Israel, another Jew would willingly give his life to save yours. That if there isn’t something meaningful to die for, what is the point of living?
You dance with other Jews at the Kotel- strangers- on Friday night- and then are invited by someone you don’t know for a Shabbat dinner and you know that all Jews are family.
You learn about the wars that Israel has fought- with all odds against them and about the miracles that have happened in our day. You see a country flourishing that has never flourished for any other people other than the Jewish nation. You see a country of Jews- just like you- speaking Hebrew and finding meaning in the religion that you learned about in day school or Hebrew school or for your bar mitzvah and there it is, something that seemed archaic is living and breathing in this beautiful country.
You step off the ground, about to leave this country and it doesn’t make any sense at all, but you feel like you’re leaving home and there’s a wrenching pain inside and you promise yourself that you will come back.
It may not come as naturally to be loudly and proudly Jewish outside of Israel and spirituality may not be as much in the air but with some confidence in what you believe, it can be done. The growth journey does not have to end or even regress when your flight touches ground outside of Israel. And while you may not feel as on fire as you did in Israel, with passion, hard work and brutal honesty, your Israel experience does not have to be a memory; it can be a transformational experience that accompanies you on your life’s journey.