Here's the beginning of a letter I'll (soon) send out to family and friends, some ideas which I've posted here before.
There is generally nothing more boring, especially for those who weren't on the trip, as a letter about one's vacation. But I know my powers of speech will fail if anyone asks how it was, and I'll be able to offer little else but a tongue-tied "amazing." So, instead, here are some brief (I promise) impressions of the Hanukkah week I just spent in Israel with [my congregation], my first visit ever.
I expected this trip to be about the place and people, and my community--and it was all those things--but mostly it was about me. All my ideas about Israel have been challenged, and most of them changed.
As some of you know, I got on the plane with mixed feelings. Israel wasn't part of the conversation when I was growing up, even though I attended an Orthodox Hebrew school (a really bad one) and my father prayed three times a day. We were concerned with the here and now, and Israel seemed to represent a place, like the Eastern Europe of my grandparents, from which we needed to move on. We sponsored trees and gave tzedaka, but out of a sense of duty rather than passion.
After many years during which I rarely set foot in a synagogue, I joined [...] and discovered I really did like being Jewish. But I still didn't understand the Israel part, and the more involved I became in Jewish life, the more this gap felt like a chasm between myself and the rest of my community. Israel was a color on a map, an angry paragraph in the newspaper. I had no sense of its people or soul. I felt like I was missing a point that everyone around me seemed to get it in a very profound way, and began to wonder if I was even capable of understanding. What right did I have to stand at the bima and chant Torah if I was unable to comprehend the central message of the whole story?
Until the we reached the end of the runway, I wasn't fully convinced I'd get there, or even sure I was supposed to be there at all. I started to change my mind after we landed and I saw Hebrew signs and mezzuzot in the airport. You'll be amazed, my friends had said; everyone in this country speaks in the language of prayerbooks! But I wasn't surprised at all. It seemed completely natural, familiar. I know very little Modern Hebrew, but recognized "Exit/Yetziah" --as in "yetziat Mitzrayim," the exodus from Egypt--in red above all the doorways. This was the language--a whole country full of it--of Shabbat, of secrets and thoughts I admit only to myself and to God.