Growing up, the most difficult part of being Jewish was not the fact that I was the only Jew in my group of friends, or that I had to tell my soccer coach I would not be making our last game because it was on Yom Kippur. Instead, the most challenging part of my Jewish childhood was staying completely silent in my room until 1:00pm on Sundays so that my mother would lose track of the time and forget that I should be in Hebrew School.
For me, Hebrew School doused the flickering flames of my Jewish fervor. I felt more identification with my heritage strolling down the kosher aisle of my nearest grocery store. I had no interest in an activity that made me sit indoors on sunny weekends and read a language backwards. These days, as I fill out the papers to complete my upcoming Aliyah to Israel, I realize those Hebrew classes could have come in handy.
So I know what you are thinking. How did a Hebrew School drop-out end up saying this past year--and truly mean it--B’Shana Haba’ah bi Yerushalem (Next Year in Jerusalem) at the Passover Seder table? Or, even better, that after a stint in Jerusalem, she is headed to live and raise her family in Sderot?
To be honest, I can’t believe it myself. Sure, the Birthright spell took over once my body remained magically afloat in the Dead Sea. Yet, my need to live in Israel stems from a reason far greater than just getting a chance to stroll through the outdoor markets again and feel the Mediterranean sand between my toes. I needed to make a difference—for myself and for Israel—until I was ready to call the land of milk and honey my home.
In the winter of 2008, I travelled with The Jewish National Fund’s Alternate Winter Break
. The program offered the opportunity to go to Israel instead of college spring break hot spots like Cabo as well as do community service for the Jewish country instead of taking full advantage of the all-inclusive Mexican resort. It was a chance to see the “real” Israel, not just through a tour bus, but through hands-on experiences.
In order to participate on the trip, each participant is required to raise $900 for an indoor playground in Sderot, a JNF initiative to provide the children of Sderot with the "luxury" of playtime without the worry of rocket attacks. The building was constructed to remain safe no matter what was happening beyond the playground walls, providing these young people the security I took for granted when I was growing up.
Though I used the fundraising site that JNF provided, I noticed that my friends and family actually needed little explanation on why they should donate to the Sderot Indoor Playground. It was the first time that I understood the meaning of the global Jewish community and the powerful connection linking us together. Every push of a shovel and swipe of a paintbrush I made while on this JNF program brought me closer to Israel and made me feel that I was authentically part of the Jewish community.
JNF took us to Israeli locations passed over by the typical tourist, enabling us to see a broad range of towns and villages in the Negev such as Yerucham and Arad. We worked together as true Zionists, tearing unwanted weeds from the soil in order to make room for the delicate new roots of the tree we were planting. We learned that our hours spent painting the bomb shelters with decorative colors encouraged the local residents and made them feel less isolated. We could see for ourselves the difference we made by serving freshly prepared meals at the nearby soup kitchens. Together, through our work, we became one with Israel and with each other. As the mayor of Yerucham said when he spoke to us one night in the desert, “You came here with Israel on your minds, you will get Israel on your hands, and you will leave with Israel in your heart”.
He was right. I've saved the work gloves I made muddy working during that winter break in Israel. They remind me of how thrilling it was to make a difference and to be part of building a great nation. With Israel in my heart, I was ready to begin my path to make Israel my home and Sderot my neighborhood. After working in Israel, being a Jew no longer meant pretending to be asleep to escape Hebrew School. It meant exerting all my effort to be part of something important, extending into the future-- our future.