“Next Year in Jerusalem,” said my dad as he stared at me with eyes full of pride. The phrase used to end the Seder ceremony during Passover was finally about to come true for me. In just a matter of months I would be boarding a plane to the country of my ancestors. Israel. I couldn’t believe it. Living there for six weeks with my friends from summer camp?! How much better could my summer get?
Growing up as a young Jewish kid, Israel was always on the back burners of my mind. I heard about it in the news and read about in magazines but never felt a drive or passion to go. It was just a picture in a book of a place that maybe one day I would get around to visiting. But then I went to Camp Ramah in California and my outlook on Israel and my faith for that matter, changed forever. It was summer 2008 and I was going into 9th grade. I had never been to a sleepaway camp before, let alone one that was strictly a conservative Jewish camp. Needless to say I was scared. The summer began and when I got off the bus at camp I was blown away. Immediatly I could feel something change inside of me. Just being in the environment, I felt more Jewish. The summer session (4 weeks) passed quickly. I made friends and developed a stronger Jewish identity. One afternoon we sat through a presentation on Camp Ramah’s Seminar Program. I was blown away. Being able to visit the land of my ancestors with my camp friends and being away from my parents; all at the same time?! Where could I sign up??? Of course then I realized I wasn’t old enough but the second I was off the bus at home I told my parents that was what I would be doing in the summer of 2010.
Summer 2009 passed quickly. I was in the oldest age group at camp and was back with my friends. When the session drew to a close, we looked at each other with a sense of fear and excitement. We all knew what the next step in the program was. Israel. The question remained: Who would be at the airport that fateful day to leave behind home and everything comfortable for six weeks. I assured all my friends that I would be there even though for a time being I was unsure I would (due to money issues). Luckily my family and I pulled through and I was there at the airport when my friends got there. I waved goodbye to my parents as I disappeared through the security gates. I got on the plan and as we took off over the Pacific, it hit me. I was leaving home for six weeks. I wouldn’t see my friends from home or my parents for six weeks. Yet I wasn’t scared. Part of me felt like I was going home. To the home where my heritage and the ideas that I was raised up with were from.
Landing in Tel Aviv, I was beyond nervous and excited. I found out I wasn’t going to be living withh all of my friends because we had been split up into different groups. There were 8 different bus groups and each bus group lived together. I would be living with kids from my camp and kids from Camp Ramah Darom in Georgia. That was a little unsettling but soon our group became very close. We became a mishpocha, a family. The first week was spent in the North visiting sites up there. Such sites included hiking beside the River Dan, kayaking in the Jordan River, and swimming in the Sea of Galilee. But the next four weeks was what I was truly looking forward too. We would move to a base in Jerusalem and live there.
Finally the day came and we packed our stuff and got on a bus in the North and began the bus ride down to Jerusalem. I fell asleep but when I opened my eyes the bus had stopped. We were told to get off. In a sleepy slow walk I got off the bus and as my eyes adjusted i realized where i was. Jerusalem. The City of Gold. I was finally here. I could see the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall. I was moved to tears. I was here. I was home.
The next 4 weeks passed in a blur. We visited the Western Wall three times, climbed Masada, floated in the Dead Sea, paid our respects to Theodore Hertzl (the visionary behind Israel), and even went shopping in the market place like Israelis. Soon it was time to move onto the South. I was filled with sadness as the visions of my city disappeared behind me. The week in the south filled me with excitement and fear.
We were hiking one day in the South and in the distance we heard a loud explosion and soon after that the ground began to tremble. The sky was crystal clear and blue without a cloud in the sky, so it couldn’t have been thunder I thought. It was possible that it was a minor earthquake. But no. It was a bomb. Several rockets had been fired from Jordan into the South where we were. I was so scared. The one that had exploded closest to us had only missed the area closest to us by 10 miles. We prayed for safety and for peace those last 3 days of the program. Our prayers must have been heard because there was not another attack.
Saying goodbye to my new friends was difficult. They weren’t going back to California with me. They were going to Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Canada, Pennsylvania, and even New York. There were many tears but as usual there were the promises of phone calls and emails. I boarded the plane to the States with the same people I had left with. Yet we were not the same. We were all forever changed. On the outside we were tanner and a little more muscular (from all the hiking) but on the inside everyone one of us had changed in our own way. For me, I realized who I wanted to be as Jewish tennager. And let me tell you that is a lot to process at the ripe age of 15. I got off the plane and was ambushed by my family and my best friend. I cried tears of joy when I saw them and tears full of sadness saying goodbye to my friends once again.
When I was loading my bags into the car, my mom came around and asked me quietly,”How was your trip?” I found myself unable to answer her. I had been through and witnessed so much. I opened my mouth and no words came out. Tears rolled down my cheeks and she wrapped her arms around me and said, “That’s how I felt when I cam home after my trip in the late 1980s. I couldn’t describe what I had experienced to anyone in words because no words came to mind. Sweetie, it’s okay to cry. Israel does that to people. Its raw beauty that is under all the fighting and conflict really moves people.”
Physically I was home in California but emotionally I believe still to this day that I left part of me in Israel. And when I am older I will return to retrieve that missing piece of me. But until then I say, “Next Year in Jerusalem.” I may literally not be in Jerusalem next year but one day I will be. And that is all that matters.
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