It was dusk on a Shabbat evening in the Old City of Jerusalem. Dressed conservatively, I walked toward a pile of ancient bricks, piled 25 feet high in the air, creating a magnificent wall. I stared hesitantly and pondered, “Could this really be anything more than a wall?”
As I entered, I was overwhelmed: women praying, crying and divulging their deepest hopes, prayers and wishes, and placing them into the deep crevices between rocks where the mortar has been chipped away. I was also skeptical—but that skepticism was masking a deeper desire to feel something, anything that would lead me to tears.
My story may sound familiar: As a young child growing up in Buffalo Grove, my love of Judaism was mandated by external expectations. I was constantly reminded of the obligations that came along with being Jewish by my parents, my Rabbi and the traditions my family observed.
After my bat mitzvah, many of these reminders began to lose their grip. We left our synagogue and Friday nights became less about Shabbat and more about socializing with friends. All that remained of my connection to Judaism was a tug of war between parents attempting to remind a stubborn teenage girl of her Jewish faith and a know-it-all who felt that everything her parents said was wrong.
Eventually, I found myself questioning the purpose of religion in my life and came to the brash conclusion that Judaism was more of a burden than a blessing. My mother often said, “Leora, Judaism is more than a religion, it is a way you feel in your heart.” Each time I heard this, I grew more and more distant from my Jewish roots, save for my twice-a-year attendance at synagogue for “mandatory holidays.”
This mindset was pervasive until my early 20s, when I decided it may be time to reconnect with my Jewish roots. As a Teach For America corps member, I learned of a program that would bring me to Israel for 10 days. Supported by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Samberg Family Foundation, in partnership with Teach For America, the REALITY Israel Experience offers corps members the opportunity to take an inside look at Israel’s education and social justice systems, meet with top Israeli leaders and thinkers—Jewish and Arab—and explore the values that drive our passion for education.
I decided to apply to see if connecting my passions for educational inequality in the United States with my Jewish heritage would provide the spark necessary to rekindle my Judaism. When accepted, I had mixed feelings. Excited to travel abroad with my fellow corps members and take a critical look at our values, beliefs and leadership potential, I was also terrified that I would not feel a connection to Judaism.
My fears, as it turns out, were unfounded.
My mother’s descriptions of being “Jewish in your heart” finally made sense when my fingers grazed the Kotel (Wailing Wall). I looked up at the millions of prayers that had been carefully placed into the crevices of the ancient wall and began to cry. I held the hands of friends I had made from around the country and whispered softy the prayer for a long-awaited occasion: “Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam shecheyanu v'kiy'manu v'higyanu lazman hazeh.” For me, the time had finally come; I finally felt Jewish in my heart.
People spend their lives adopting the mindsets of those they admire, never realizing that exploration and discovery are the most powerful tools. As a teenager, I lost the connection to my Jewish self; it was never severed but instead buried deep inside. When others tried to force that connection upon me, it was only buried more deeply. But when I had the opportunity to experience it for myself, in a way that related to the values I already espoused in my daily life, that connection not only resurfaced, it became entrenched.
My experience on the REALITY Israel Experience program offered the perfect backdrop to engage in autonomous exploration and discovery of myself as a Jewish woman and the role I want Judaism to play in my life. I look back now and wonder how I ever neglected my Judaism; being Jewish has always been who I am and traveling to Israel allowed me to discover that once again.
Leora Sher joined Teach For America in 2010 and is a first-grade teacher Rowe Elementary Charter School in West Town, Chicago. She has spent time teaching adolescent AIDS awareness in the villages of South Africa and is a proud alumna of the REALITY Israel Experience for Teach For America Corps Members.