Thinking of Europe, the words that came to my mind were glamorous, beautiful and safe. Thinking of Israel, the words were ancient, distant and dangerous.
In my hometown of Miami, Florida, I grew up with a Jewish identity. Throughout my childhood, I heard my parents use Yiddish expressions at home. Although I didn’t usually know what they meant (which was intentional on their part), I did know this was part of living in a Jewish household. I started to understand the dark side of the history of the Jewish people in sixth grade when my class read and performed The Diary of Anne Frank.
As an adult, my husband and I attended synagogue services frequently when our daughters were preparing for their Bat Mitzvahs. Israel was mentioned often in the rabbi’s sermons. Sometimes it was a cultural or societal reference, other times it was a commentary on a violent occurrence. When it was the latter, it would often be after a violent event had occurred.
For many years, visiting Israel had little appeal to me. Who would raise our children if something happened to me and my husband? I have elderly parents. Who would look after them? I’m an only child. Visions of armed soldiers swirled in my head. Guns meant there was probable danger.
Israel became a someday destination. Someday, when all the conflict in the Middle East was gone, we would go. Someday, when rocket attacks and suicide bombings ceased to be one of the top news stories of the day, we would go. Someday, when there were no more wars or strife in the world, we would go.
The years went by and my husband and I again discussed going to Israel. After all, I told myself, there have been wars and friction with neighbouring Arab states even prior to Israel becoming a state. Violence was much more prevalent in all parts of the world now. What were we waiting for? World peace was a utopian idea.
Collective thoughts and experiences can create persistent fears. ‘What ifs’ can overtake the desires to push ahead with a dream. Were fears holding me back? I didn’t want fear to rule my life decisions. My husband and I made the decision. It was time for us to go to Israel. It was time to take a leap of faith.
When I looked up ‘a leap of faith’, two definitions in particular spoke to me. The first was: To believe in something or someone based on faith rather than evidence. The second was: Trust in G-d that isn’t based on empirical evidence. I chose to believe and trust that we would be safe.
My search for a group tour began. I had seen a banner for an Adult Israel Trip at my local Jewish Community Centre. The banner promoting the trip had started with “Celebrate Israel Independence Day in Israel.” The itinerary checked off all the “must-sees” for first-time travellers to Israel. The tour would take us to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Masada, the Dead Sea and more.
It has been several months since we returned from Israel. There were so many amazing sights and adventures. One special experience occurred on Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day. At 11:00 in the morning, a siren sounded in solemn memory of Israel’s fallen soldiers. Everyone stopped whatever they were doing, standing in silence for two full minutes. Drivers got out of their cars, vendors in the shuk (market) stopped pedalling their wares and we, visitors to this remarkable land, stopped walking and stood quiet and still.
The experiences that I had will live on forever in my heart. I’ll never forget looking up at the faces in the pictures of both young and old victims of the Holocaust, whose lives were tragically cut short, at Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and museum. I’ll never forget listening to the modern day exodus story of Ethiopian Jews at the cultural centre in Beit Shean, told with tremendous passion by the director of the centre. I’ll never forget having dinner with young Israeli soldiers who are serving in the army. Their stories of life in the army were moving. I’ll never forget ascending Masada, a fortress and UNESCO World Heritage site located high above the Dead Sea. Masada’s well-preserved ruins are a testament to the courage of the Jewish people as they were confronted by the Romans. And I’ll never forget the sheer joy on the faces of the parents at their son’s Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall.
Reading history books and historical fiction is educational and enlightening. Yet nothing can compare to travelling to places where history and culture began.
Making this pilgrimage to Israel transformed me in more ways than I could have imagined. This country, where I was not in the minority as a Jew for the first time in my life, strengthened my connection to Israel. This country, regarded as the holy land by Jews, Christians and Muslims, made me wonder why world peace is not possible. People of three different faiths go about their daily lives in a seemingly peaceful fashion. This country, whose struggle for independence was long and hard-fought, made me appreciate its achievements even more.
From the sparkling beauty of the Mediterranean Sea to the magnificence of Masada, from the colourful, bustling Carmel Market to the ruins of Caesarea, my journey through Israel was incredible.
Now that I’ve been to Israel, the words I think of have changed. My words to describe Israel now are enchanting, awe-inspiring, and embracing. I can’t wait to return.