I Choose Israel
by Ondria Rees
When I decided to convert to Judaism at the age of fourteen, I was nervous that I would not be accepted into the Jewish community. My first visit to shul was on Shavuot, and despite being spotted as an outsider almost immediately, the temple congregants were very warm and helped me understand Jewish customs instead of treating me like a stranger.
One of the sweetest memories I have of that day was the elders telling me that my attendance was a sign that I truly have a Jewish soul — as every Jewish soul past, present, and future witnessed the receiving of the Law at Mount Sinai on the first Shavuot.
My Jewish story begins at a young age when I was going through a lot of changes in my life that were not so positive. I was very harsh and critical of myself during this rough transition between childhood and adolescence, which resulted in lack of self-confidence and motivation. The final straw was getting suspended from my high school for failing most of my classes the whole school year. My vulnerability drew me to ask God for help. I was initially drawn to Judaism for its spiritual deepness and how Jewish beliefs could be interpreted in multiple ways, unlike the Christian take of putting everything in a straightforward, black-or-white category.
Six years have passed since then, and I am constantly growing spiritually and learning about what Judaism means to me. I used to find it intriguing that so many of our prayers are about Israel and Jerusalem, yet those of us in the diaspora clearly have a limited connection to the homeland, if any.
Just before I finished high school, my father tried convincing me to join the Israel Defence Forces… but I decided against it and wanted to go to college. Coming from a military family, serving your country is a value my father wanted me to carry on, but not feeling attached to either the United States or Israel in a patriotic way turned me away from the idea of sacrificing so much for so little reward. I saw myself as a convert with no Jewish heritage to claim, therefore the topic of Zionism was one I did not pay much heed to.
It wasn’t until my first semester of college was over that I heard about Birthright Israel, which I signed up for right away because I love to travel (especially for free!). I began to read the Tanakh at home and had a revelation of how closely tied Judaism is to the land of Israel and how every Jew in the world is connected through a spiritual belonging to the land, which led to my interest in following Israeli news and Zionist sources on social media that informed me about every aspect of Israeli society that I so desperately wanted to learn more about. I never felt so much at home as when I arrived in Israel on my Birthright trip and just toured around the country for a few days.
The time had come at the end of our trip to go to Jerusalem, which would include a visit to the Kotel. I wrote up my prayer and was making my way to the Wall, when I began crying out of nowhere. I approached the Wall and started to sob; my mind was racing.
For thousands of years, a majority of the Jewish people have been denied freedom of self-identity, yearning for the Jewish homeland and have suffered unimaginable persecution, yet I was so lucky to have suffered nothing and got a free trip on top of that. I realized that even though the Jewish people have their own State, persecution lives on. Even in the homeland soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces are necessary to protect night and day. I am so grateful to enjoy the land of Israel when so many generations before me could not, and want to be part of making sure the Jewish people will always have a home in our ancestral, religious, and cultural source of origin.
Ondria Camile Rees is 20 years old. She is a proud Jew by Choice, having converted in 2013. On Birthright Israel in June of 2016 she fell in love with the country and hopes to make aliyah in 2020. She is currently attending Cal Poly Pomona majoring in graphic design and minoring in art history and over the summer is interning for the Israel Forever Foundation.