Imagine growing up as an American secular Jew, but finding out that simply because of the blood that flows through my veins, Jewish blood, I am eligible for a free 10 day trip to Israel. As I applied for the trip, I felt like a fraud. (After all, I am not that Jewish. I did not have a bat mitzah, I do not fast for Yom Kippur, I have rarely set foot inside a synagogue.) And yet they accepted me and sent me my travel information. Fast forward to June 12. As my plane lands in the Ben Gurion airport and I make my first few steps in the land of Israel, I am greeted with the words "Welcome Home." What can this possibly mean? Home is in Roseville, California. Home is the United States. Home is paved roads and shopping malls. How can this strange country full of deserts, seas, rivers, foreign insects and animals, and a language I don't even speak be a home to me?
I try to search for a feeling of home throughout my 10 days in Israel. I am traveling with my sister and 38 other American Jews, mostly from the Los Angeles area. We form a fast bond, all of us coming from similar backgrounds and sharing this amazing experience together. With them I feel at home. All of us remark that we feel that we've known each other our whole lives.
But can the country itself ever feel like home? All the beautiful sites.. the stunning views of desert, sea, hills, valleys, the historic cities and towns, the ancient buildings that defined history. Do I feel at home here? I feel unworthy of this beautiful country being my home. It is so rich, textured, old, and important.
I experienced so much in those ten days, so much that to describe it all here would be futile. Do look at my Flickr set to see it all as I tried to capture as much as I could. But to float in the Dead Sea and feel the stinging of salt in your eyes, to ride on a camel's back through the Negev desert as people have done for thousands of years before you, to raft down the Jordan River, to sleep in a tent on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, to eat Falafel in downtown Tel Aviv as you stroll through an outdoor market, to pray by the Western Wall, to be stung by jellyfish in the Mediterranean... all of this cannot be captured in words or photos. As I am back home fighting jet lag from the 15 hour flight back from Tel Aviv to Los Angeles, the whole thing seems like one of those dreams that was so good that you wish you could fall back asleep and be in the dream again.
The final day of the trip, the meaning of Israel being a homeland started to make sense. After nine days of sheer pleasure, the trip took a solemn turn as we visited Yad Vashem, the holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem. The Holocaust and the existence of the State of Israel are nearly impossible to separate. While some deny a cause/effect relationship, one can't help but acknowledge the sense of urgency with which Israel was formed shortly after the end of World War II. Being in the museum, seeing all of those people who look like you and lived a similarly carefree life, never suspecting anything like that could happen to them... and then seeing that the rest of the world could care less... that even the United States, the country that I call home, did not care if my Jewish relatives lived or died... I suddenly started to see how Israel is a sort of home. Because heaven forbid anything should ever happen, I will have a place to go and be safe. And I could go there tomorrow, ask for citizenship, and be granted it without hesitation.
But it is impossible to go through all of this without feeling torn about the conflict with the Palestinians. Is it fair that the safety and unity of the Jewish people should come at the expense of that of another group? Is it fair that my best friend, who is Palestinian and whose parents own property in a Palestinian territory, just got 40% of his land taken away by the Israeli government? How can I feel joy about this supposed homeland when it is tainted with the knowledge that another people are suffering? Is it possible to simply charge it to the game, and say life's not fair, but ultimately this is the best solution? I don't know.
I do know I had an amazing experience, and feel beyond blessed to have had it. I hope to return someday, but even more I ultimately hope for peace in the region.