A year and a half ago, I was accepted for a year of service by the Jewish Agency in the Jewish community in heart of New Jersey. As with anything new in life you go into for the first time, you do not really know what to expect. I tried to speculate as to how my days would look, what people I would meet, and how I would survive a year away from my comfortable, familiar place. And the truth is, I boarded a plane into the unknown and let myself open up in order to create new experiences and connections.
The beginning felt as if I had entered an empty house that I had to furnish so that I could call it "my home." I had to get used to everything being different. A different country, different food, different people, and a different routine. And at first it was hard. It was hard for me to miss all my friends’ enlistments to the Army, and I simply felt that life was continuing without me and I wasn’t there. But slowly I found my place, felt more comfortable, connected with people, and I realized that my life was continuing too, and that my time here is limited. I was given the opportunity to see a new world for a year, and at the age of 18. I was given the opportunity to be exposed to a new culture – and those in Israel and the United States know that the culture of Israelis and Americans are very different from each other.
I'm grateful for the places I've seen - whether it was the opportunity to see shows on Broadway, stroll through the streets of New York, and of course, live and work New Jersey - the capital of diners and parks, where every corner is green and blooming. I am grateful to the institutions that welcomed me with open arms and trusted me to teach their children about Israel, and to the kids who opened their thinking about Israel a little differently after hearing my personal experiences.
This year I got some presents.
The first gift, of course, was showing people the beautiful side of Israel. The side beyond what you see on the news, beyond politics or places you see on the map. The moment people saw me, they saw Israel! I got a chance to show people a whole world of caring, warmth, love, history and culture, and by doing that, I have learned more about Israel. And so far away from Israel, my love and appreciation for her grows from day to day.
The second gift was learning new things, too. Of course, our main task this year was to educate the community about Israel, but I also learned about Israel, among many other things.
What does it mean to be a Jew outside the State of Israel?
Before I came here, I wasn't exposed at all to how Judaism in the diaspora works, or how hard it was to "choose" to be Jewish or to be a part of this community. In Israel, Judaism is actually served on a silver platter – whether it is the kosher food in the grocery stores, holidays as part of the education system, or of course, most of the people in the country are Jews. I know that I am going to return to Israel with everything I have learned, and hopefully pass it on to all my friends and relatives. It is important that there is a mutual support and connection between Israel and diaspora Jews.
For me, experiencing all the holidays, the remembrance days, Eurovision, and everything that happens in Israel outside of it, gave me a pinch in the heart. I wanted to jump back, just for an hour and then come back. In those moments, it was easy to break down and want to return to the warm place where everything is familiar, and to everyone that knows you. Sometimes you just feel alone away from home, even though you are surrounded by people. At first it feels strange, and the atmosphere is different; being in synagogue on Yom Kippur; seeing all the cars on the road; or all the shops that are open on Friday night. It's confusing.
My feelings about these differences is not about religion at all, but about being used to something else. And slowly, every holiday as time went by, I understood again that everything was connected to that "choice" I was talking about: to live in one reality and another one at the same time, and to combine them.
During the year, I saw the love that all the people here have for Israel. I admit that at first, I didn’t understand how people could have such a great love and a sense of belonging to a country they were not born in or grew up in. But I understood that this is what is special in Israel. I didn’t see it because I grew up there, but Israel belongs to every Jew, and accepts every Jew in the world. It’s a place that will always embrace and give love, a place you can call home.
Israel is a place of history, of culture, of acceptance of the other. Israel is the proof that we have won, over and over again.
I will miss all the people I met along the way, miss the place I used to call home for a year and had the privilege to be in. I thank the community in the heart of New Jersey and Jewish Federation for giving me the opportunity to teach about Israel, to learn, to laugh and to cry here. Thank you to all of the kids I worked with – you are amazing, and I enjoyed every minute with you!
I can only hope that you will remember me and what I tried to give you, aspiring you to learn more about Israel and encouraging you to visit and fall in love with the country like I do every time I come back.
I thank all the people who opened their homes and hearts to me, and gave me a place, even if it was for a short time.
This is goodbye for now, but I will see you in the Holy Land!
With all my love, Dana