A day before my 17th birthday, I had no doubts: I wanted to study Latin America. Then, life threw me a curveball — I won a scholarship to Israel — and I blasted it out of the park. I had seen photographs of the Western Wall numerous times, but in June 2007 I actually stood before the ancient stones. Once there, the red-eye plane trip I had just taken halfway across the world didn’t faze me. I almost couldn’t believe the sight of the real people and the real place. Standing there that evening, on the start of Shabbat, I felt thousands of embracing hands near me. I could see Orthodox and secular Jews praying together, rich and poor dancing together. Tonight, the mayor with a mansion and the homeless woman were equal. Tonight, the immense religious and social walls came crashing down. For tonight, no bombs sounded. Tonight, at least, there was peace.
This peace, however, needs to extend beyond Shabbat night. In the shadow of the gilded Dome of the Rock next to the Western Wall, I realized my dream. I dream of working for a world where I can stroll through Mecca with a kippah, and I can see hijabs in Israel’s Jewish Quarter. I will not be sedated by the drug of gradualism, nor calmed with the “soothing” words, “Hold on, peace will come if you wait.” No, I will be the change I wish to see in the world. I knew I could not turn back from the climb towards peace.
But, I immediately saw that everyone didn’t share this idealistic vision. While bargaining for my “Shalom, Salaam, Peace” shirt in Eilat, the Israeli seller scoffed at my attempt at bargaining, saying “When there actually is peace, I’ll give you that price.” Yet, more Israelis I met wanted to work with Arabs than scorn them. When I asked my Israeli friend, whose family had been torn by Israeli-Arab conflict, who she blamed, she responded, “Radicals. I don’t think the majority hate Israelis. ”
After three weeks, I returned to the United States, with the two-dozen Central Florida Jewish teenagers who made up the Greater Orlando Summer in Israel Experience. I carried a Jewish star purchased in the Arab Quarter, and along with it, a new hope: that the smiles of Jews and Arabs I met would soon replace the scowls of mistrust held by the few radicals some think represent a people. A person cannot represent a people, a people cannot represent an evil, and an evil cannot be represented by skin color or flag design.
How in a desert of hate and fear can I help find an oasis of acceptance between two peoples? I knew I had to learn more, I knew I wanted to study the Middle East. During my senior year in high school, as Op-Ed editor of the Lion’s Tale newspaper, I wrote about Israel, to help others see what I envision. I volunteered as an assistant teacher in my Temple’s Sunday school, where I tried to help middle school children learn the importance of tolerance not just among Jews, or between Jews and Muslims, but among all.
At college next year, I intend to major in Middle Eastern Studies. Through study abroad, I want to travel to Israel to learn how to help foster peace, by enrolling in the University of Haifa’s Honors Program in Peace and Conflict Studies. But it was because of my first trip that I often wear a shirt proclaiming “Peace, Shalom, Salaam… It’s a beautiful sight to see.
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