We left Israel on Saturday evening.
When I was younger, I remember the deep anguish and sadness that I felt when an Israel trip was over and I was about to fly home. I remember those bus rides to the airport, watching the lights on the side of highway pass by, hoping that something, anything, would make the trip last longer. I remember sitting on airplanes, watching the lights of Tel Aviv vanish below and behind us with misty eyes, and remembering only the pain of having to leave a country I loved so much.
Fast forward some years, and that feeling is but a memory. My trips to Israel now number close to 20, and I leave Israel now each time thinking about coming home to my family and about how long it will be until my next trip, not with the intense melancholy of my teenage and college years.
Now, when I leave Israel, I see the kids on the trips I lead dealing with those same emotions. They don’t want to leave, and I inevitably get emails from their parents thanking us for bringing them and helping them have such a powerful experience, and describing to us how sad the kids are to be home. I get it. I was there. I remember.
In an age of rising apathy and assimilation, those emails, and those faces on our students, are how I know that for many kids, Israel is that magic potion that will create a passionate connection for them with Judaism. For the kids who come back with tears in their eyes and a pain in their heart, we’ve done our job and created something aspirational and personal for them. They will be coming back, looking for more.
Over the years I’ve come to believe that there is no more powerful experience that we can give to our students and our children that a trip to Israel. Thousands of Jewish teens have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah every year and we won’t see over half of them ever again, but for the greater number of teens and young adults that make their way to Israel every year… well, for them, I’m pretty sure we’ll be seeing them again.
Psalm 126 prayer has a famous line, “those who sow in tears shall reap with joy.” For all of us who once left, or still leave, Israel with that sadness, we await our joyful return that next time that lies, hopefully, not too far in the future.