My Israel Journey: from the Outside, In

Tags: Jewish Identity, Jewish Unity, Religion, Zionism

by Harley Feldman

One could say that I grew up “pretty Jewish.” Both my parents are Jewish, I went to a Jewish day school, lived in a primarily Jewish neighborhood, belonged to a synagogue, celebrated the major Jewish holidays, studied the hebrew language, and the list goes on. Most importantly, I was surrounded by the notion that Israel is our homeland and the most important place in the world for the Jewish people.

I would hear that from everyone - teachers, students, friends and family, and you know what? I believed them. As a kid, I didn’t really think to question it. In my mind, Israel was this holy and magical place where every Jewish person should feel like they belonged.

I had never actually experienced what I was told and taught about Israel.

In eighth grade I went on a two week school trip to Israel with my grade. Preparing for the trip, I remember being so excited to feel that connection everyone had always talked about. Obviously, I had a ton of fun. Who wouldn’t love walking through the shuk, eating falafel, and floating in the Dead Sea? Nevertheless, I was pretty disappointed. I didn’t feel that “aha” moment when I stepped off the plane. I didn’t cry when I prayed at the Kotel for the first time. I thought to myself, “Am I doing something wrong?

During my trip there was a free weekend to spend with family or friends. Most of my friends went to stay with their grandparents, siblings, or cousins. I have absolutely no family in Israel - trust me, I asked my parents multiple times secretly hoping a distant aunt would pop up out of the blue. I desperately wanted to have a connection in Israel to feel a connection to Israel. It upset me that I didn’t have any ties to the place where I was told I should belong.

Transitioning to Jewish high school, I continued to learn about Israel, but at a much deeper level. We began discussing more mature topics, like the Israeli-Arab conflict and we delved deeper into Israeli history and culture. Discovering the media’s consistent misrepresentation of Israel, I had trouble understanding others’ hatred toward the place where I was told I should feel at home. Simply knowing about all of the animosity and controversy surrounding Israel made me nervous to visit my senior year of high school.

After visiting the Kotel one Friday night, I started to understand why I constantly heard people rave about Israel and its importance for the Jewish people. I always understood, in theory, but that was when I first experienced it for myself.

In the spirit of welcoming the Shabbat at the Kotel, my friends and I were dancing and singing in a small circle. Suddenly, random Israeli women grabbed our hands and weaved themselves into our circle augmenting our faint singing of “Am Yisrael Chai.” What was initially a group of American girls celebrating their excitement of being in Israel turned into a beautiful celebration of Judaism by women of all different backgrounds. At that moment, I was overwhelmed with unadulterated joy.

I realized I was a part of something bigger than myself, bigger than my group of friends, and bigger than my Jewish education. I shared values and history with a group of people whom I had never met.

After my epiphany, I yearned for more moments like the one at the Kotel so I decided to spend my summer in Israel, first doing Birthright and then extending on the Onward Hillel Jerusalem program.

Now I'm in Israel by myself without the organized trips, tour guides, and coach buses. It’s just me, a few friends, the Moovit app, and two months of exploring.

I came here to continue discovering how I fit in with Israel. Maybe I won't figure it out in just two months or maybe I'll never find exactly what I'm looking for. Maybe it’s the journey that matters… What I have discovered is that Israel isn't perfect, no country is, but it is one of a kind. The people are passionate, strong, and full of pride. I also realized that are aspects of Judaism that I don’t necessarily agree with or understand, but there are other parts that make me feel proud to be Jewish.

Most importantly, I now understand that I don’t need to have family in Israel to feel connected. I can make my own connections through my own experiences and the people I meet. Being able to navigate the streets, talk to locals, and just experience the country by myself has stopped me from looking at Israel from the outside in. Developing a deeper relationship with Israel has made me feel less like a tourist and more like a member of a community.

Harley Feldman is a rising junior at the University of Maryland. She is studying Marketing at the Robert H. School of Business. During her free time, she serves as the Vice President of Recruitment of her sorority, Sigma Delta Tau. Harley is very excited to be exploring Israel for her third time and working at the Israel Forever Foundation.

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Tags: Jewish Identity, Jewish Unity, Religion, Zionism