A Boy Discovering his World
I grew up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in an Orthodox community, I went to a Zionist Orthodox school, but my home life was never so observant. We always celebrated Shabbat and holidays, but we were more cultural than religious. It was only when I began learning for my Bar Mitzvah that I decided I wanted to take it upon myself to be more religious. I slowly started practicing more of the mitzvot, eating strictly kosher, and wearing tzizit and a kippah on a daily basis.
Even before this change in my life, I was lucky enough to have visited Israel a few times. I was too young to really understand the significance of the country, but I remember feeling a sense of familiarity when I was there. It was different from the other places that we traveled to on vacation; we would see my cousins, visit my grandmother’s grave, pass people on the street who we knew from home, and see all the sites I was always learning about in school. It didn't feel like a foreign country.
Then the Passover before my bar mitzvah, I was lucky enough to put my tefillin on for the first time at the Kotel. At that moment I felt so proud to be Jewish, strangers were giving me tips and congratulating me, they wanted to celebrate with me simply because I became a man in Judaism. I felt a connection with them and it was because we were all Jews in Israel sharing the same ideology, beliefs, and history.
Since then, every time I traveled to Israel, I felt comfortable as if I was visiting an old friend. It was almost a given that when I graduated high school, I would spend a year living and learning there before starting college. That year I was the most religious and spiritual I had ever been and probably ever will be. I learned a lot about myself as an individual and what kind of person I want to become.
When I came home and started college in Maryland, I realized how lucky I was to have lived there for even a brief period of time. It was so easy to be Jewish and religious there, the country revolved around Shabbat and holidays, I never had to look far for a place to eat, there was always a minyan, and there was always someone willing to help. However, it was impossible to maintain everything I practiced and learned that year once I returned home.
My year was a bubble where all my Jewish needs were met and I had to figure out how I was going to practice my Judaism outside of Israel and yeshiva. I have since found a middle ground between who I was before yeshiva and who I became during that year.
My connection to Israel is not unique, but everyone has their own story and memories that keep them coming back. However, with all the good that comes out of Israel, you can never escape the terrible stories that we too often hear. It is a simple country to be Jewish in, but it's not always easy to live there. People fight the existence of the country politically and through violence, and yet Israel is not just surviving, its flourishing. Its remarkable to see the strength of the people and the power Israel continues to have in spite of everything it endures.
My experiences in Israel have not always been smooth. The summer after 10th grade, I went on an Israel program called Sulam. That summer, Israel was at war and there was a heavy and constant rain of rocket fire. There were so many times the tzeva adom (red alert) siren would go off and we had to run into bomb shelters. I was sixteen years old, and it was frightening, especially since I did not know Hebrew so well. Except what sticks out in my memory is not the fear or rush of danger but how every Israeli immediately ran and grabbed me and my friends and brought us to safety without hesitation.
Surprisingly, through all of that, there was never a time when my love for Israel waned or deterred me from wanting to be there. I am happy to be able to live and work in Israel this summer, and be part of the country where you can always rely on the kindness of strangers, no matter what.
Many of my friends from the program also returned to spend a year living and learning in Israel. I always find it so incredible how people who live a relatively safe life keep coming back to Israel where stories like mine and ones that are even worse are unfortunately so commonplace. I honestly believe it’s because every Israeli takes care of each other, you always hear how people rush to aid in every crisis. It’s a place you feel safe despite everything because you can always rely on the kindness of strangers.
When I had a chance this summer to return to Israel for an internship, I gladly took the opportunity. I want to share my experiences and love for the country so that others can care for it the way I do. Israel is a unique country, and I feel that the best way to truly understand it is by visiting, but I know that is not possible for everyone. I want to do my best to relay my experiences - the good and bad - so that everyone can get a clear and full picture of the country.
Noah Engelmayer is a double major in Economics and Information Sciences at the University of Maryland. His father has been working in public relations for many years and recently started his own public relations company, which gave him an interest in marketing at a young age. He has always loved Israel from the first moment he visited and wanted to spend a year there, attending Yeshivat Reishit after graduating from high school.