For the past three weeks, I’ve been studying at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel with kids from across the United States. I have friends from the coast of California to the mountains of Maine. Israel has become our classroom as we learn about Jewish history from the time of ancient civilizations to our modern world. We studied the ancient Romans as we hiked Masada, and followed in the footsteps of Abraham and the Biblical characters. We’ve learned about Israel’s trading system while floating in the Dead Sea, and traced our ancestry at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum. Being in such a foreign land has been an eye-opening and incredible experience.
I came to Israel to embark on a spiritual journey. Four years ago, my great-grandfather passed away. His funeral was on a clear December day, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. As we were reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish, the final prayer in the Jewish service, a flurry of pink bougainvillea leaves in a dust storm crossed over the tent. When his coffin was placed in the ground, the dust storm stopped, and the leaves fell. I’ve always seen dust storms as a sign that he’s with me.
As we were driving to Jerusalem yesterday, I noticed another dust storm begin to form in the desert. I knew it was him telling me I was in the right place. His lasting regret was never being able to make it to Israel. Israel was mostly a figment of his imagination: he was always too stubborn to travel and he never had the money. I’m here in Israel, the first in four generations of my family, to fulfill his wish.
We were blindfolded as we approached the city limits of Jerusalem. When we arrived, we all staggered our way out of the bus, using each other’s shoulders as a guide. I thought of my great-grandfather as I lifted my blindfold, and tears formed in my eyes. We were overlooking the city, the gilded dome of the Temple Mount gleaming in the sun. My friend Dani said to me, “You’re home now.” She couldn’t have been more right.
We spent the day today walking inside the famous water tunnel in the City of David as we studied King David’s lineage and emphasis on agriculture. Even though we were trekking through frigid water, sometimes up to our thighs, we sang our favorite Britney Spears and High School Musical songs. I didn’t even care when I tripped in the tunnel, soaking my clothes in the process, because I was with some of my new best friends.
We then went to the Western Wall. I had brought my great-grandfather’s tallit (prayer shawl) with me in order to finish his journey to Israel. As I prayed with his Tallis wrapped around my back, I felt connected not just to him but to Judaism. I cried again as I thought of him and how proud he’d be of me.
This is why I’m in Israel. My time here is about about connecting with my religion and absorbing the culture and history. What I’ve discovered is a sense of belonging I didn’t know I was missing. And Aroma coffee. It’s seriously the best.
L’chaim! (To life!)
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