Internalizing the Eternal: My Journey to My Jewish Identity
by Abby Chargo
“What does Israel mean to you?” is the hardest question to answer because Israel is all-encompassing for me. Israel helps define my Jewish identity, how I carry myself, my thoughts, speech and actions, and how I identify as a person overall.
I have been calling Israel my home since the first time I stepped foot onto the land when I was 15 years old. I didn’t quite realize what Israel was and what it meant to me. All I knew is that it felt like home. It just felt right.
I returned with my family when I was 17 years old. It was then that I decided I needed to come to Israel by myself and discover what it is that makes me love this place. I managed to do exactly that when, at 19, I came to study for a semester at Hebrew University. I could not articulate why I came for this semester, all I knew is that I needed to be in Israel.
Within the first week of the semester abroad, my life abruptly changed. I began studying with a chavrusa, a Torah study partner, and for the first time in my life, I felt a connection to my Judaism, which, over time, became better defined and molded by residing in Jerusalem, the heart of Zion.
I began to understand that every person has a soul, which is a piece of G-d. This helped me pinpoint why I have that burning passion inside of me everytime I come back to Israel; my soul shines brighter because I am connecting to my homeland and by doing so, connecting to myself.
I continued my learning sessions, which expanded from once a week to four times a week. I felt as though I was consistently on this high, which was only enhanced by the daily realization that I was in Israel. I began looking at myself differently and at the people around me differently. I no longer jumped to conclusions about people that I didn’t know, rather I internally became inspired by every person I passed on the street, repeatedly telling myself that everyone has a different purpose in this world and that is something to be amazed by.
I vividly remember passing by a street performer in the middle of Yafo Street one night and instead of thinking, “Oh, it’s just another street performer looking for money,” I actually thought to myself, “Wow, they are utilizing their G-d given talent. That is beautiful.”
Realizing that I, along with those around me, have G-dliness inside, forever changed the way I see the world, small things and large things.
Every day that was spent in Israel, I was constantly striving to reach my full potential and to fulfill the personal mission, whatever that may be, that G-d gave me. I began taking different Jewish traditions on and actively working on my middos, internal characteristics. I wanted to work at becoming the best version of myself possible.
It actually took effort to be in a bad mood because my mind was constantly focused on the positive - in awe of who I am, individually, as a Jewish person, and also what we, as a nation, are capable of. My learning ranged from topics such as Jewish law and how to live daily life as a Jewish person, all the way to how we became the Jewish nation that we are today. I was developing a deep connection with my Jewish identity at the same time that I was creating a relationship with the land that my ancestors once walked on.
Learning about who I am as a Jew became and still remains a vital piece of my life. I quickly learned that being a good person goes hand-in-hand with being Jewish. I knew I needed to continue this learning, but my time in Israel was coming to an end all too swiftly. Moving back to America, it would be up to me whether or not I shared my understanding of Israel and Judaism with those around me. The decision was clear, but the journey was not going to be easy.
Upon returning to America, people were interested in my experience, but it was short-term interest. Adjusting back to American culture seemed near to impossible and I was in a really dark place for quite some time. The people, the culture, the relationships and the atmosphere in America are different, which is not a good or a bad thing, it’s just completely and utterly different.
Israel and my Judaism were still burning inside of me, but it was not easy to share it with those around me, like it was in Israel. People looked at me differently, both positively and negatively, because of the changes that I had made to my life. My mind kept telling me that people did not want to hear what I had to say because, “this is America, not Israel.” Regardless, I felt I needed to make it known that there are various ways one can form a connection with their Jewish identity and their relationship with Israel and it does not have to be a religious change in their life, just because mine was.
How could I take what I learned in Israel and bring it back to my community and my campus? How could I share my experience in the Holy Land and make it relatable for every Jew of every observance level.
I went to both my campus Hillel and Chabad and made them aware that I was on a mission to bring Israel to our campus and to my peers, along with all of the aspects that come with this beautiful place that we, as Jews, are blessed enough to call home. When one learns about the history of where they and their ancestors come from, Jews begin to understand more of who they are, why they are the way that they are and why they do the things that they do. The strength this understanding gives can motivate people to want to relay the information to others as well. And so, I began implementing programming, both educational and social, but it was not possible to do it alone and by getting other students involved, they too began feeling responsible and passionate about the topics they were teaching to their peers in their own way.
The culture of America and universities in America gives the impression that academics come first and there is no room for anything else. My goal is to be an example for fellow Jewish students, showing that it is possible to succeed academically, while also pursuing education about who you are as a Jew and your personal connection is to your homeland. Both are possible and both are important.
While Israel defines a majority of the aspects in my life, specifically my Judaism and my Jewish identity, it may mean something completely different for the person sitting next to me. This is the exact reason that I am passionate and devoted to helping others find their own connection to Israel and to never lose sight of it. As Jewish people, we are blessed to have a homeland as special as Israel, but it was not just handed to us. People fought and died for us to have this home. Israelis are still fighting to maintain the homeland for Jews everywhere, so any Jew can come whenever he or she feels the desire or need to do so. This is why it is so important to educate ourselves about this beautiful place and understand what Israel means to each of us individually and as a nation, especially when living in the Diaspora.
Abby is a Senior at the University of Kansas and will be graduating in December 2018 with a degree in Strategic Communications and a minor in Jewish studies. She loves exercising, learning, cooking, eating a lot of food and meeting new people. Her greatest passions in life are Judaism and Israel and her career goal is to work for a Jewish nonprofit organization in the near future.