On August 8th, I came back from Israel for the third time after having traveled there with the JCC Boston Diller Teen Fellowship program. The Diller program is a 15-month pluralistic, national, youth leadership fellowship currently available in 16 North America and Israel communities and coordinated locally through the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston. Diller partners fellows from eight cities in North America with those from eight cities in Israel to focus on Jewish identity, leadership, Israel, and community service. After visiting Israel in eighth grade with The Rashi School, a Reform Jewish Day School, and again in ninth grade with Prozdor, a Hebrew High School, I was convinced that the “Israel moment” was a myth. Even though each time I went to Israel I came back with a strong connection and feeling of belonging to the Jewish people and homeland (as we say in Diller, I was “reJEWvenated”), I had never experienced that defining moment.
The “Israel moment” is a common term used by American Jews. We believe that as part of the Jewish people, when we visit Israel we will suddenly have a moment when our connection to Israel crystalizes and we feel intensely joined to the land and the Jewish people. Yet, does it really make sense that when going to a new and foreign country, no matter the amount of history it holds, a person will be able to pinpoint one distinct moment in which he or she feels that complete connection? Before I went to Israel for the first time, I was not sure. I thought that maybe I would have a “moment” when touching the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Second Temple of Jerusalem that is considered the holiest place for Jews, for the first time. Or maybe I would have a “moment” when I walked through the zigs and zags of Yad Vashem, reading about the Holocaust and seeing the striking pit of shoes and hair taken from Jews who had been killed in the concentration camps. But over the 2 course of my first two trips, I never had that “moment.” My belief after my first two trips was that a single “Israel moment” did not exist. Rather, the whole trip was an experience that left you with a new and more profound connection to the land and the people—and a longing to return. Thus, to me, “the Israel moment” seemed to be the cumulative total of these experiences.
The Diller Teen Fellowship is a 15-month experience that, for me, began at the beginning of tenth grade. Before Israel, we had three weekend-long retreats (known as Shabbatons), monthly workshops, and a two-week visit from our partner fellows from Haifa. I had made thirty-five new best friends, even though 16 of them lived in Haifa. And, more importantly, I had begun a journey of personal growth and discovery fostered by my Diller family.
At the beginning of the Diller Israel Summer Seminar, many of the fellows expressed their fear of not having an “Israel moment”. Good luck, I thought, because I was doubtful that I would ever have one after two trips to Israel. But frankly, I was perfectly content knowing that I would never have one, because I had my own special connection to Israel. During the trip, the international fellows met together at Diller Congress and discussed Jewish identity and peoplehood surrounding Avraham Infeld’s idea of the five-legged table of Judaism—family, memory, Israel, covenant, and language. Every Jew is supposed to choose three legs of the table so whenever someone meets a fellow Jew, they will automatically have at least one leg in common. After Congress, the Boston-Haifa group discussed our personal “sixth leg”, which we decided was different for each person.
Personally, I was a little lost. I did not know what I wanted my sixth leg to be as I had not even decided on my three legs. Judaism, to me, is such a broad range of 3 interconnected ideas and paths that I could never imagine limiting myself to just three of the legs, or even coming up with what should be my “sixth” leg. With my mind whirling with different thoughts on what it means to be Jewish, the Boston cohort transitioned into a maagal lila, literally “night circle,” a final reflection activity done each night. Little did I know that my whole perspective on Judaism and Israel was about to change.
Our maagal consisted of a flashback—a trust walk similar to what we did at our first Shabbaton. Our junior counselors led us outside the Bedouin tents we were visiting and the screeching and guitar-playing of the other youth groups slowly faded away. We walked blindfolded, hand in hand, into the desert, not knowing who was in front or behind. A sense of calm settled in the silence as we were separated and sat down. When we were instructed to take off our blindfolds, the most spectacular night sky greeted us. Free from city lights and sounds, the desert welcomed us with a breadth of stars that I had never seen before. The layered sand dunes melted into the starry sky, which was full of shooting stars, supernovas, planets, and far away galaxies. The shadows of the twenty Boston Diller figures cast by the Bedouins’ lights literally made us a part of the land of Israel. As I looked into the vast expanse of stars, each one with its own place in the sky, my thoughts on what it means to be a Jew became clear. Each Jew, no matter how bright he shines, has a special place in the sky that forms the Jewish nation. I finally had my “Israel moment”—the one that I never thought I would have, the one that I had learned to live without.
Now that I have had my “moment”, though, I will never forget it. I now feel that I know Israel and that I belong there. Together, the 20 Boston Diller fellows had a “moment” that night that will bond us together with the land of Israel forever. But, in truth, even if you never have an “Israel moment,” it does not mean that you cannot connect with Israel. Such 4 bonding can occur from multiple smaller events over the course of an entire visit, rather than just a single moment. In fact, I found that I felt the strongest connection with Israel immediately after I left and returned to my everyday life.
Three times I have watched the Chassidic men with their Peyos and top hats gather at the back of the EL AL plane for prayer during the flight. Three times I have visited Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa. Five times I have said a personal prayer at the Kotel and tucked a tiny folded-up note into the overflowing crevices. Three times I have experienced Israel; yet only once have I had an “Israel moment.”
But that moment—it was beautiful.
Jessica Landon is a fellow in the Boston JCC Diller Teen Fellowship. She is a junior at Newton South High School.
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