From Discomfort to Comfort in Israel

Tags: Jewish Identity, Family

by Rachel Brynien

Growing up the small town of Lansdale in southern Pennsylvania, being Jewish was not “cool”. I did not have a single friend from school who was a religious or practicing Jew, and because of this I never felt like I truly belonged in my community. My family celebrated Shabbat and all of the holidays, but outside of my house I avoided Jewish talk as I was embarrassed to be the only one with such customs.

When I attended Hebrew school, we learned that Israel was a Jewish state, and that is about it. As I was not entirely proud of my Jewish background, I did not find it necessary to have a connection with Israel. During high school, I got involved in a youth movement which helped to strengthen my ties; however, it was not until after high school that my feelings towards Israel really began to change. After graduation, just two years ago, I decided to hop on a plane, travel halfway across the world, and embark on a nine month gap year in Israel, instead of going to college. At the time I could not explain to my friends, nor myself, why I was making this decision.

Everyone called me crazy, and maybe I was, but something inside my soul was drawing me to the land of Israel.

When I first arrived in Israel, I did not know much. My only knowledge was what I had learned growing up in Hebrew school and my youth group. I did not speak a word of Hebrew, and I did not know a lot about Israeli culture. During the first few weeks I was terrified and confused, slowly trying to find my way around this foreign place. I was yelled at by bus drivers for not scanning my bus card properly, and I never gave the right amount of money when trying to pay.

I remember walking through the shuk before my first Shabbat and getting pushed from left and right as everyone was moving fast, all on their own mission. As a young American student, in the busy city of Jerusalem, I felt out of place with my lack of knowledge. As the year went on I started to become more acclimated, but it was during my fifth month that I truly began to feel at home.

During month five of living in Israel, I moved from Jerusalem to a small development town in the Negev called Yerucham, to volunteer for my last four months. The first day, my friend Avi and I went to the grocery store. As we struggled to buy our food, talking in extremely loud English, a man named David approached us. Unlike most people in this town, David spoke perfect English, and he began asking us where we were from and what we were doing here in Israel. After our conversation, he invited us to come have dinner at his house. Dinners at David’s house soon became a weekly event.

David’s family welcomed us with open arms. They made us feel as if we had lived in this town for our whole lives. They taught us about Israeli history, culture, and the language. Whenever we had questions they willingly answered, no matter what the question was. David opened the first high-tech company in Yerucham, and constantly taught us about all of the technological advances being made in Israel.

The time spent with David and his family helped me feel like I was truly a part of Israeli society. David introduced me to almost everyone in the town. I could not walk down the street without being greeted with a smile. No matter how busy people were, they were always willing to stop and help me when needed. This occured not only in Yerucham, but everywhere I traveled in the country. It’s a shame I didn’t realize this when I first came to Jerusalem and felt so unsure of myself! This is not an uncommon experience in Israel. All around the country Israelis are openly teaching visitors about their way of life. Not only teaching, but making these visitors feel a part of this country.

Over my nine months spent in this country, Israel became comfortable. I could openly express who I was more than when I was in the States. To me, Israel is a place of open arms that accepts you for who you are. I never feel “uncool” for my views and beliefs. Israel is more than just the Jewish state that is talked about in Hebrew School. It is a giant community where you feel supported and cared about. During my year here, I felt more connected to the state of Israel than I did in my own community in America.

At home I was never given the opportunity to learn about the people of Israel beyond the conflict (and I am not sure if I learned what I should have about that!). I had heard stories about different Israeli citizens, but only ones that made them sound stubborn, I never heard of the generosity and kindness that is shown towards strangers. Here in Israel I attained a new kind of comfort. No one is questioning me, I am able to be myself with no explanation for why I am doing what I do. No matter what may be going on in the country, the sense of love and care never goes away. This is why I feel Israel is my home. The love I receive in the community here is more than I could have ever imagined receiving when I was sitting in Hebrew School learning about the Jewish state.

Born and raised outside of Philadelphia, Rachel Brynien is a rising junior at the University of Maryland. After taking a gap year in Israel, she decided to bring together her passion for traveling, culture, and problem-solving by majoring in International Relations.

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Tags: Jewish Identity, Family