“Welcome home,” said the speaker at Independence Hall in Tel Aviv. Even though we all had jet-lag from the twelve hour flight, those two words are probably the most memorable of our entire trip. We were twenty-four Jewish teens on a twenty-four day National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) trip in Israel. I didn’t know it at that moment, but the next three and a half weeks would be the most at home and welcome I have ever felt in my life.
One of the most memorable experiences I had in Israel was meeting and talking with Arab-Israeli teens in a community called Shorashim. They were kind to us, and our differences seemed to vanish once we began talking. We talked about music, pop culture, and what we like to do for fun. One girl I talked with liked hip-hop music just like I do, and she wants to move to New York when she gets older. One guy was really cool and gave us a demonstration of his break dancing skills. Once we said goodbye to our new friends from Shorashim, we headed to a Druze village in Haifa. We were welcomed by a man who served us a traditional meal from his culture. It was some of the most delicious food we ate during our time in Israel. He explained to us that the Druze believe in reincarnation. It was extremely fascinating to hear a view different from my own and it made me think about things I had never thought about before. I will remember that meal forever.
Another exciting experience I had in Israel was going to a beach party with Israeli teens. They were celebrating the end of their school year and we got to party with them! We swam in the ocean, had our Sabbath service on the beach, and met some really interesting people. I learned a hand-clapping game from a girl I met, and a guy played his guitar for us. They Israeli kids were excited that we were at their summer party, and we were grateful to be there. A few days later we returned to the same town to eat dinners with host families and we got to see some of the friends we met at the beach . Two other girls and myself got to eat dinner with a beautiful family and just talk to them and find out what it is like to be Israeli. We mostly talked with Segev, the oldest child. He had just graduated from high school and was three months away from going into the army. Segev told us that he was going to travel to Greece before he went into the army, and then he would be serving his country for three years. It is exciting and yet terrifying to think about someone our age being in the military. In Israel, everyone has to serve in the Israeli Defense Force when they are eighteen. We showed Segev how to use his Facebook account–that way we could still keep in contact once we went back to America. It is so fun to meet people from other places and see how they live. The experience is so much greater though, when they welcome you with a smile and make you feel accepted.
My time in Israel changed me immensely. It strengthened my connection to the land, it has made me a stronger, more passionate Jewish individual, it has made me so grateful for diversity, and it has made me realize that I want to live in Israel during some point in my life. One more way that my journey to Israel has impacted me is that I have learned to welcome others and make them feel wanted, accepted, happy, and at home. My group was treated so well in Israel; we stayed at dozens of hotels and Kibbutzim, we ate at numerous people’s homes and villages, and we were most importantly treated as family. Last year, my school had a foreign exchange student from Pakistan. Her name is Nayab and she is probably the most interesting and intelligent person I know. Since I had known what it was like to be in a foreign country, I knew that maybe she felt overwhelmed, excited, and a little scared. I quickly befriended her and later invited her over for my birthday/Chanukah party. She soon became an essential member of my group of friends. Nayab fit in so well with us; she knew how to be silly, funny, and smart. She taught us so much about life in Pakistan. It was at Nayab’s going away party in June that we realized we had so much more to learn from her and we were so sad to see her go. I still correspond weekly on Facebook with Nayab, and she teaches me about her religion and culture, and I teach her about mine. This year on the first day of school when I saw that Mary, the exchange student from Italy, was in my physics class, I immediately asked her to sit by me. I am looking forward to learning more about Mary and I know that I made her feel very welcome on her first day of school in a new country.
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