Over December break, my family traveled to Israel for my daughter’s bat mitzvah. Family members from both sides converged in Jerusalem from Boston, Manhattan, Philadelphia and Orlando, each with their own Israel story.
While my husband, daughter and I had been in Israel four years ago for my son’s bar mitzvah, my brother had not been in Israel for 37 years. My nephew had been there last year on a Birthright trip, and my niece was visiting Israel for the very first time. And then there was my son, who last year spent two-and-a-half months in Israel, having been six weeks with Gann Academy and a month with Camp Tel Noar. My brother’s family traveled with us throughout the trip, and while our collective experience was incredibly joyful, we each felt, observed and heard very different things.
For my 17-year-old niece, Israel was a place she had heard about in Hebrew school. Her Hebrew long forgotten, she experienced Israel through all five senses. She hiked in the Galil and in the desert, and she tasted new foods like sufganiyot, halva and shakshuka. She met the Kotel, and while taking in its awesome size and historical and religious significance, she questioned why the women’s section was so much smaller than the men’s. She loved the colors and smells of Machane Yehuda. She felt the heartbeat of Tel Aviv and heard the ancient voices of Caesaria while running through the Hippodrome as my son explained who King Herod was and why he was so important. She happily mastered the phrase, “Od mayim b’vakasha” (more water, please), and she can’t wait to return on a Birthright trip in a year or two. Her Jewish identity was reawakened, and this first taste of Israel left her wanting more.
My brother was amazed by how much Israel had changed, and yet he still felt connected and rooted to places he hadn’t seen in close to four decades. He enjoyed the warmth and hospitality of Israelis who freely offered us coffee and directions, and deeply appreciated his sister’s ability to navigate the country like a native. He saw the co-existence of Jews and Arabs working and living side-by-side in some places, and not at all in others. He enjoyed seeing his children experience Israel, and he was happy to create his own new memories. His trip was definitely the theme of old meets new.
Israel is a second home for me, and my wish has always been for my children to have that same feeling. In addition to the immense joy I experienced watching my daughter lead a service and sing her Torah portion with confidence and meaning, I loved seeing my children appreciate Israel’s natural beauty and hard-fought landscape. They spoke Hebrew with waiters, cab drivers and shopkeepers. My son could lead a culinary tour; trust me, he knows the best shwarma in every city. My daughter ordered every meal in Hebrew and my son can bargain with the best of them in the shuk. They wanted to linger in Jerusalem cafes and wander in and out of shops in Tzfat.
One of our best evenings happened at the end of our trip. Over dinner in Jaffa, my two kids debated with their cousins about the importance of Jewish identity, the imperative of a Jewish homeland and the relevance of Judaism in their lives. It was an intense and passionate discussion that left an impression on all of them. I sat back, listened and experienced Israel through their eyes. Years of day school education flowed freely in the conversation. If you ever wonder about the value of Jewish day school and its ability to nurture confidence, identity and engagement, don’t.
What a gift it was to see my children sharing their Israel story; hopefully, there are many chapters yet to come. Think about it: What’s your Israel story?
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