A tourist observes but does not experience. The distinction is subtle yet important: visiting Machaneh Yehuda to witness Friday afternoon chaos versus braving the balagan (lively chaos) to buy your own Shabbat groceries. True experience, however, requires understanding; you must comprehend a culture before immersing yourself in the lifestyle.
This summer, the Diller Teen Fellowship allowed me to understand, experience and love Israel on a deeper level. Through the theme of Israel of Many Faces, I, along with 19 other Chicago fellows and four staff members, explored Israel’s diverse narratives. We acknowledged landmarks (such as the Kotel, Har Hertzel and Masada) but focused on Israeli culture, on people. We were much more interested in our tour guide Revital’s personality and stories than in whatever monument out the window she was explaining. And when an Israeli guest speaker scoffed that we were spending a week in Kiryat Gat, we held our heads high, knowing that the people there were our people-- the best host families and friends across Israel.
Having been to Israel twice before, I found this new angle -- the emphasis on lifestyle over landmark -- refreshing and eye-opening. I challenged myself to engage in all that is Israel, to the extent that my scavenger-hunt teammates thought I was crazy for asking every passerby in Tel Aviv to join our Horah.
Reflecting on moments I felt most absorbed in Israeli culture -- most unlike a tourist -- I recall my host home in Kiryat Gat. By my second day with the Cohen family during Community Week, I didn’t feel like a guest; I was family. I practiced my Hebrew playing games with Noam, my host’s, sibling and had full conversations with her parents while she was in a different room. I was initially nervous to stay with Noam’s family because I’m conservative, and Noam’s family is strictly orthodox. But as Noam and I savored our last Saturday night together, shakshuka on the stove and Israeli music in the background, I remember thinking, this is home.
My stay in Kiryat Gat not only acquainted me with an authentic Israeli lifestyle, but also introduced me to Israeli perspectives. Friday night, Noam and I went to Bnei Akiva, her community youth group. The Rabbi was conducting a discussion about diaspora Jews, asking if we (the Israelis and single Chicagoan) thought that all Jews living outside of Israel must eventually make aliyah. An Israeli boy started aggressively claiming that diaspora Jews were illegitimate, an opinion I hadn’t heard before, and Noam -- usually shy, quiet, soft-spoken -- stood right up and defended me. I understood, loved, felt at home in her home, and she similarly appreciated mine.
At the end of the trip, I encountered and loved homes beyond just mine and Noam’s. Surrounded by 640 teens from 32 cities worldwide at Diller Global Congress, the sea of white t-shirts and bucket hats didn’t overwhelm me. Thanks to Diller, I understood beyond a tourist’s limitations: I wasn’t afraid to experience diversity. 32 cities meant 32 cultures; 640 teens meant 640 homes. I was prepared, excited, to engage with new beliefs and customs, and I have friends across the globe to show for it. Thanks to Diller, I thrived.
Dina Barrish is not only a Diller Teen Fellow, but a senior at Rochelle Zell Jewish High School in Deerfield and Editor-in-Chief of the school newspaper, The Stripe. She is co-president of Moriah Congregation’s USY chapter and interns at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. She looks forward to returning to Israel in January 2020 with the RZJHS Senior class.