What people don’t tell you about going to Israel for the first time is how completely wiped out you’ll be when you get home. Talking to my editor about this piece, I was warned that if I coupled the words “Israel” and “amazing” here, I’d be banned from JUF News forever. I will avoid doing that, but I think I see why people say, “Israel was amazing.”
It’s because they are too exhausted to come up with more insightful answers. The wiped-out feeling isn’t jet lag or the typical post-vacation letdown. When I have traveled abroad in the past, I took an osmosis approach. I wandered, I relaxed, I took in what was interesting to me and didn’t worry about the rest. I quickly figured out that Israel by osmosis wasn’t an option. I put pressure on myself to pay attention to every detail for every second of every day in order to connect with and try to make sense of this beautifully complicated country.
And paying attention—from Jerusalem, to Tel Aviv, Kiryat Moria, Be’er Sheva, The Gaza Strip, the Negev, Tsfat, the Galilee, the northern border, Kyriat Gat and back to Tel Aviv—made me very tired.
I kept a blog for JUF while I was traveling. In it, I chronicled various trips with the Masa Media Mission group (the Masa organization brings Diaspora Jews to Israel on numerous educational programs; my group was a media mission for approximately 20 journalists from four countries), shared my encounters with Elvis (there’s a shocking amount of Elvis graffiti in Israel), wrote of visits to JUF’s Chicago Partnership 2000 region, Kyriat Gat-Lachish-Shafir, and posted pictures of camels and fire hydrants. What I didn’t often do is write about how I felt. I didn’t have the time to reflect or the space to look back and consider what those gut reactions meant.
My first blog post was about the definition of a holy land—I spent a lot of time before my trip wondering if I would come thinking of Israel as one of my holy spaces. My own holy spots are a bench facing the Chagall windows at the Art Institute, a beach in Maine and my parents’ dining room table. They are uncomplicated and I came by them naturally. I worried that I wouldn’t feel the Israel connection that seems to be ingrained in so many Jews.
Not surprisingly, the moments when I felt most connected happened when I wasn’t trying. There were extremes in the ways in which I connected. One was a feeling that I was in Israel, the dangerous Israel that’s portrayed on the news. The other, and I think more important, connections came during small, daily life moments shared with Israelis doing things I would do if I lived there.
Those were the times when I understood what people mean when they say that the danger is an undercurrent—that living in a threatened state doesn’t mean you think about it all the time.
In Sderot, a town near Gaza that has been heavily and consistently hit by Kassam rockets, I felt weighed down, like I was waiting for something bad to happen. On the way there, we were told that there had been an attack nearby earlier in the day and if we heard a siren we'd have about 15 seconds to find shelter. Fifteen seconds is not a long time. When I wrote about this visit for the blog, I mentioned that this was the only part of the trip that actually scared me.
The shops and market were sparsely populated. As we left town, our guide mentioned that most of the attacks happen during the morning rush hour and that the location of Sderot makes it an easy target. It feels to me like a terrorist punishing Washington, D.C., by repeatedly attacking some tiny, financially struggling town in West Virginia simply because it’s there and not because of what is there. There’s no political or military center in Sderot, there are only people who talk about wishing the shops were busy and kids walking to a school that has a concrete barrier covering the windows. This town is attacked to instill fear in the rest of the country. On that day I connected with a great sense of injustice.
Looking back, I realize that I was shaken because the people I talked to are actually used to living like that. I find it hard to imagine a place where rocket attacks aren’t news. I started to get it during the second week of the trip.
When all you see on the news is attacks in the north and fighting about the ramp near the Western Wall in Jerusalem, spending the day with people whose lives don’t seem all that different from your own is a great reminder that there is way more to Israel than the undercurrent of fear created by terrorists—I was most amazed by the Israel that is anything but afraid.
The weekend after the Masa trip, my boyfriend, Erik, met me in Tel Aviv and we spent tons of time walking—a relief after a week of packed days and lots of bus travel. We went to a small pub and watched soccer with the bartender and a group of older men; we walked down to the end of the beach at sundown to mark the beginning of Shabbat with a bunch of people playing drums, walking dogs and hanging out; we went to a restaurant without an English menu or an English-speaking waitress. For one of my favorite meals, I got some kind of fish and Erik ended up with chicken and “meat of cow.” We’re still not sure what anything was exactly but it didn’t matter.
The following Monday I was back in Jerusalem. Judith and Idit from JUF’s Jerusalem office brought me to Kiryat Gat in our Partnership 2000 region. More than seeing the work of JUF firsthand, the day helped me begin to understand how people live in Israel.
When I was a kid, I loved gymnastics. I’m notoriously clumsy and not fond of falling off of things so it was more about the hairstyle and less about serious training. But I remember being young enough to think that the park and recreation center where I took classes was a few short steps from the Olympics. When we visited an athletic center for at-risk kids with Victoria and Victor Ephraimov, a group of girls was arriving for an after-school gymnastics program.
The Kochav David organization’s sports center in Kiryat Gat is one center for activities—others house music and art programs. The JUF-funded organization works with teen drug addicts to help get them off drugs and finish high school. In addition to JUF funding, numerous individual JUF donors, inspired by visits like mine, have made directed donations to Kochav David.
I happened to be there the first time the girls saw that someone had donated mirrors to the gymnastics practice room. Seeing how thrilled they were and knowing they were about to practice their routines on a basketball-court floor made me wish I had the $11,000 they need to buy a regulation mat. I remember the feel of the spring under my toes as I stepped onto the bright blue mat as a kid—something about lining my heels up in the corner and looking diagonally down the mat made me feel really powerful—a feeling a lot of these kids aren’t accustomed to.
Later that evening, Erik and I met up with Idit at a bar in Jerusalem. When I’d first met her earlier in the day, we were instant friends. In addition to the surface similarities of being the same age and working for JUF, there was an ease about our conversations—about everything from work to dating to religion to music—that made it seem as if I have known her forever. Before I left, Idit asked if I would be in town for Passover. I don’t come from an observant family and never consistently celebrated Passover or thought much about “Next year in Jerusalem.” I never thought much about the phrase because I never felt connected to a temple—or The Temple for that matter, Jerusalem or even Israel.
But this year, back in Chicago, I celebrated Passover. This year, I have friends in Jerusalem.
Libby Ellis is marketing communications manager at the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.