Having recovered from my drastic sleep deficit of last week, as well as the intoxicating time I had leading services on Friday (more on that later), I decided to accept the invitation of the coordinator of my Israel trip and offer some thoughts for the group's weekly countdown email newsletter (only three weeks to go). People have been writing about their connections to the land, how much they've loved their many trips, etc. With some trepidation I decided to voice my ongoing confusion. It felt really good to put these words together. Here it is (edited a bit for anonymity):
Since our 20th reunion a few years ago, members of my high school graduating class have been getting together at a restaurant every year during the last week of December. This year, of course, I'll be on the Israel trip and so will be unable to attend. I RSVP'd with my regrets and soon received, to my surprise, email replies from a bunch of people with whom I had long ago dropped out of touch:
"Remember me? I'm so thrilled for you. I'll be going to my homeland (Armenia) next year for the first time and know how you must feel."
"Hey [aa.], many blessings! Please say a prayer for us at the Wall on Kwanzaa!"
These good wishes have moved me a great deal but also, to be honest, have left me feeling unworthy of the vicarious excitement. For most of my life I did not want to go to Israel. I was either wary, disinterested, angry about the political situation, or certain that as an uninvolved Jew I had no right to be there. Both sides of my family lived the American dream, arriving in New York from Eastern Europe and building new lives from scratch. The Old World--and this seemed to include Israel, where we had no relatives--was a place of pain and struggle from which we had moved on. Israel was rarely discussed at my Orthodox Hebrew school, and I grew up with little sense of her importance except as a place filled with slightly crazy idealists still fighting against evil forces not unlike those which drove my father out of Russia. Yes, we helped Israel--we dutifully sponsored trees and purchased bonds--but we had to help ourselves first. As I got older, learned the whole story, and saw other parts of the world, I understood more about the biases I had been taught. But I was not able to fully transcend them. Nor did I truly believe that Israel wanted or needed me, who had forgotten her for so long.
Since I joined [...] in 1999 and became re-involved with Jewish life, I've found a place in my heart for new and wonderful kinds of observance and expression. But I am not yet comfortable with the Israel part. When I pray in the Amidah for God's glory to be apparent in Jerusalem, I wonder why I'm supposed to yearn for this place over all others. Israel feels less like a homeland, as my Armenian friend suggested, than a distant relative who's been knocking at the door for quite some time and whom I've been unwilling to let in. I decided to go on this trip because I sensed, acutely, the hole in myself where this connection should be. I knew that in the company of friends and community I would be able to see Israel from the kind of perspective that informs everything at [...]--passionate, inclusive, fair, and grounded in love. I have no idea what I will feel when I get off that plane, but look forward to how it will change me--because I know it will, for the better.