While I was in high school in the summer of 2012, I took my first trip to Israel with BBYO, the Jewish youth movement I was involved in. I was thrilled to be spending three weeks on a trip to Israel, but part of me was also a little sad — I knew that by going on this trip, I would be losing the amazing “Birthright Israel” trip that all of my older cousins had gone on and talked about nonstop for years. I went back to Israel one more time during my high school years, just before graduating.

Then, in the blink of an eye, I was in college and had no imminent plans to return to Israel any time in the near future. It just didn’t seem like it was in the cards for me. And then — Birthright Israel changed its eligibility requirements. Just like that, I found myself on an El Al plane back to Israel, surrounded by some of my best friends.

I decided to participate on a Birthright Israel trip that was specifically for JCC Day and Overnight Camp staff. Even our mifgash (Israeli participants) were Shlichim (Israel fellows) who had worked at JCC camps! The way we explained our trip to people was “40 camp counselors became campers again for ten days.” My Birthright Israel trip was amazing. I visited places in Israel that I hadn’t seen on my two previous trips, and, now that I was older, gained even more of an appreciation for the land and the people around me. I practiced my Hebrew that I was studying at the University of Michigan, tried new foods, and made lots of new friends. And while I came home with a suitcase stuffed full of Israeli gummy candies and PopRocks chocolate, what I truly came home with was a deep sense of self, and a need to return with a chance to further immerse myself into Israeli society. 

I decided, then, that upon graduating from the University of Michigan, I would spend the year living and working in Israel, digging deeper into my relationship with it and exploring it on my own terms. This led me to participate in the Masa Israel Teaching Fellows program where I lived in Rishon LeZion and taught English to local middle school students. That year is a year that I would not trade for anything in the world. I “lived like a local,” as Masa puts it; I took the public bus to and from my school each day, shopped at the local fruit stands, and traveled into Tel Aviv to explore whenever I could. And while this sounds like it might have been all “sunshine and rainbows,” it surely was not. Living in Israel was hard, and I was not prepared for that. Living in any country that is not your home country is hard. It is hard not fluently speaking the language, it is hard trying to shop for life commodities and not knowing how to find the things that you need, and it is hard being so far away from your family and friends.

The year that I spent living in Israel forever changed me. It challenged me in ways that I cannot even begin to describe, and it pushed me to step out of my comfort zone. I am so much of who I am today because of this time in Israel. But when I returned home at the end of that school year, I felt totally disillusioned with it. Israel was not, as it turned out, the “sunshine and rainbows” that I had felt it was during my three prior trips there (and really — did you know that it’s not always hot in the middle east?! I sure didn’t!).

Every Dollar Counts! Donate today and help send a young Jewish adult ona life-changing trip to claim their birthright.
Every Dollar Counts! Donate today and help send a young Jewish adult ona life-changing trip to claim their birthright.

When I started working at Hillel at Kent State University, I didn’t realize that I would be presented with an opportunity to return to Israel less than six months after leaving — but I was. I was lucky enough to staff a Birthright Israel trip for our students, and I am forever grateful for that opportunity. I was a bit apprehensive going into the trip — how was I going to help these participants fall in love with Israel if my own relationship with Israel was rocky at best? As it turns out, staffing this first Birthright Israel trip was the best thing I could have done to re-ground me and help me re-establish my relationship with Israel. Watching my participants experience Israel – most of them for the very first time – was the most rewarding thing I could have ever asked for. To watch them fall in love with a country that I felt at odds with for so many reasons helped me fall back in love with that very same country. I was lucky enough to staff two additional Birthright Israel trips during my time at Hillel, and after each one, I left the trip feeling like the luckiest person alive.

Watching my Hillel students fall in love with Israel took the dreary black and white picture that my personally challenging year there had painted in my mind, and re-colored it in the most beautiful and vibrant way; Tel Avivian sunsets were now a fiery orange, the doorways of Tzfat the most beautiful sky blue, and the streets of Jerusalem sparkled with gold whenever they came to mind. Without Birthright Israel, my version of Israel would likely still be shades of gray, yet here I am, telling you my love story with it.

It is a story of courtship, of getting to know one another, of airing our dirty laundry and loving each other for it anyways. Israel is a piece of me, and I a piece of it, with all its challenges, and all its beauty. Without Birthright Israel, I would not have been able to see through the clouds to find the sunshine and rainbows. For that, I am forever grateful. It is because of Birthright Israel that I know that though I am in the west, my heart is — and forever will be — in the east.