Jun 19, 2022  By Ruby Russell  Category: Education,

Stepping Into the Challenge of Israel

“Your homeland” and “an evil state that shouldn’t exist” were the two ways Israel was described to me. I was a recently Bat Mitzvah-ed American trying to get to know the world and my place in it, and the issue of Israel was a sticking point. I was getting mixed messages from my family, friends, and media and did not know what to make of it. All I knew to be true was that every time Israel was brought up, my heart seemed to beat a little stronger. It was clear to me that whatever it was, as a Jew, I was inherently tied to that place over there. I figured I might as well find out what it was all about. 

My exploration started with a link in an email to the Jewish National Fund-USA website. This link ultimately led me to make aliyah to Israel, serve in the IDF, and started an ongoing personal challenge to better and strengthen the state of Israel. 

The unassuming email link led me to apply to be an Impact Fellow at Jewish National Fund-USA's Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI). Through the fellowship, I studied for four months at AMHSI's an intensive academic program, which taught me about Am Israel through travel, storytelling, real cultural experiences, and deep discussions. In tandem with the hands-on learning experience, the fellowship got me involved in Israel advocacy and outreach work and guided me to find my voice through writing and public speaking. 

My “ah-ha aliyah moment” came to me in the most unexpected of places. At the end of my semester at Alexander Muss High School in Israel, I was packed full of facts, stories, and memories that flipped what I used to call “that place over there” into a colorful image of one of the most unique countries in the world. I pored over pages and pages of notes preparing for my Israeli history final. Hours passed and my focus remained steady on the study (no obsessing over highlighter colors, preparing elaborate snacks, or any of my other usual study-procrastination tactics). This study was no usual history study session; I was studying my ancestors’ stories.

When I reached the last page of my notes, after having studied a 4,000-year history in chronological order, I realized I was reading about today. All of the wars, glory days, suffering, and resilience of those who had come before me brought me to that moment: a young Jewish girl free to study and celebrate her own heritage in the state of Israel, with the power to help write the next chapter of our story.

Israel was “my homeland.” After spending time there my soul knew that to be true. It was not “an evil state that shouldn’t exist”, but it wasn’t a simple state either. To write that next page of history, I had to open my eyes, my heart, and my mind as wide as I could. I knew that if I wanted my future children to one day live in peace in this country, I had to see all of Israel’s complexities and imperfections from the inside out and use my full body, mind, and soul to strengthen it. 

I finished the rest of my high school years in the United States, spending all my free time learning, advocating, and organizing for Israel. Less than a month after graduation, I hopped on an El Al flight and made aliyah.

Knowing Israel’s history made me certain I wanted to be a part of its future, but in order to live there at all, there was a lot more I had to understand: the earthy language, the fiery and loving culture, and the shared experiences of an Israeli young adulthood (the joyful and traumatic). 

Today I am a proud Israeli citizen, a commander in the IDF, and an (almost) fluent Hebrew speaker. The last year and 10 months since I made aliyah, I have cried tears of joy (when consumed by the euphoria of being among my people), tears of frustration (when Hebrew, the language of my heart, wouldn’t sound right on my tongue), tears of fear (when watching rockets fly over my head), and tears of anger (when people around me turn desperation into violence). Despite it all and because of it all, I dry my eyes and keep on the journey of understanding the complexities of today and working towards a more peaceful tomorrow. 

I thank my 12-year old self for rushing headlong into the challenge of embracing Israel rather than turning my back on it when faced with conflicting narratives. An even greater gratitude is owed to my ancestors, who never abandoned our identity and dreams over millennia spent in exile, and who struggled together to build this state from a hope into a reality. It is only through the willingness to step forward when faced with challenges, that I am where I am today, and am filled with joy to think of the future I am helping to build for generations to come. 


To find out more about Alexander Muss High School in Israel, visit amhsi.org