I don't remember much from my first trip to Israel, but I have a vivid memory of the moment I arrived back in Chicago afterward. My dad was going on a week-long business trip to Israel and I, the savvy seven-year-old I was, convinced him to take me. Although the trip mostly consisted of me refusing to try the goopy hummus and gorging myself with pizza-flavored Bissli, an Israeli snack, I could feel something special stirring inside of me.
A deep presence was awakening. When we touched down at O'Hare, my dad turned to me and said, "Well, Alex, we're home." To which I replied: "No, we just left." I didn't know it then, but that powerful feeling that was awakened when I landed in Chicago was my Jewish soul.
Over the years I have traveled to Israel extensively-- this coming month will be my eighth time in 12 years-- and this alone would make any Jewish parent proud. However, what makes it even more impressive is that each of my six cousins on my dad's side have traveled to Israel just as many, if not more, times than I have. Combined, my generation of the Harris/Ainis family has visited Israel almost 40 times in the past 12 years, and that is without counting trips by the aunts and uncles (including them would bring that total to almost 60).
Between the seven of us we have participated on (or will soon) the following Israel Experience programs: Ta'am Yisrael, Write On for Israel, Birthright Israel, Masa Israel Journey, Ramah Seminar, Shorashim High School, USY Pilgrimage, Nativ Gap Year Program, iEngage, JRC-Aish, Solomon Schechter Day School, and Rochelle Zell High School, Niles North High School, and even a Deerfield High School Orchestra Tour. And we are still going strong. Here's an update on where everyone is this year:
Rebecca, 22, who graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign last spring and is currently conducting research in neuro-degenerative diseases on a Masa program at Bar Ilan University. (See her story on p. XX .) Among the many programs she has participated in, she describes her Write On for Israel trip as "a program which gave me a new perspective...and showed me a side of Israel that I had never seen before."
Zach, 19, is a freshman at Brown University and spent last year on Mechinat Nachshon, an Israeli army preparatory program. For Zach, the program was incredibly powerful and, as he relates, "I grew immensely over the course of the program. I gained fluency in Hebrew, deepened my connection to Israel, Judaism, and Zionism, learned how to lead a meaningful and value-driven life, and made life-long friends."
Ethan, 17, is a senior at Rochelle Zell Jewish High School, and is looking forward to participating on RZJHS' senior Israel trip in January. Meanwhile, Jacob, 19, is currently on the Nativ Gap Year Program and just finished his semester at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Aliza, 26, made
(immigrated to Israel) in 2015 after receiving her master's degree in social work with a specialization in crisis and trauma from Tel Aviv University, also a Masa program. During her studies, she studied alongside Israeli Jews and Arabs and worked in underprivileged neighborhoods in Tel Aviv. On the decision to make
, Aliza said, "About halfway through my program I realized that I was much happier in Israel then I was in the States. I found my home here." She currently works at a bilingual
Rachel, 14, already has a few Israel trips under her belt and is excited to visit more. She already understands the role of Israel in her life, "In America, everybody has 'something else,' a second identity. For me, it is Israel. Every American has their second home and Israel is mine." Rachel will be participating in the Niles North High School trip in March, the only U.S. public high school to sponsor a Hebrew language trip to Israel.
As for me, I'll be traveling to Israel this January to participate in the Shalom Hartman iEngage Seminar and the World Union of Jewish Students conference, but I won't be traveling alone. Five of the seven cousins will be in Israel at the same time and luckily for them, my perspective on hummus has drastically changed since my first trip to Israel.
Alex Harris is from Deerfield and is a junior at the University of Michigan.