DC resident Elissa Gross, a former intern with Masa Israel Journey, recently reflected on her past experience living and studying abroad in Israel. Masa Israel Journey connects Jewish young adults to internship, service, and academic programs in Israel. It is a joint project of the Government of Israel and the Jewish Agency for Israel and is made possible by the generous contributions of the Jewish Federations of North America and Keren Hayesod-UIA. Visit MasaIsrael.org for more information. This is a guest post and thus represents only the opinions of the author; it does not represent a GTJ institutional stance.
Why did I leave to go to Israel during the Gaza War? The answer to this question is simultaneously simple and complicated, personal and universal. As were the nine subsequent months that followed, which I spent in this complex country of chaos and contradictions, resilience and passion.
The simple answer is that I had been placed on a Birthright Trip on January 11th, 2009, and received scholarships and grants to stay in Israel after that and participate in Masa Israel’s WUJS Jerusalem Program.” The complicated answer is that for years I had been grappling with my Jewish identity–with what being Jewish means to me both personally and as part of a collective history–and I desperately wanted to continue this journey in the land that my people call “home.”
Even after countless time spent envisioning, preparing, and planning for the voyage I was to embark on, when it came time to step onto the plane, to step into my new life, I almost could not do it. I was seized with fear—about what lay ahead, about what I would discover, and, not, of course, what entering a country during wartime would entail. But the moment I stepped off of the plane and into Israel’s whirlwind of vibrancy and life, my apprehension was assuaged. One cannot say that life in Israel is not affected by the constant threat of or reaction to violence and terror, but one can say that “life goes on.” Life is lived. And the Jewish spirit forges ahead.
While I am grateful for my uplifting Birthright experience, it was the weeks that I spent on my own afterward exploring the land and the people and the culture that were the most personally profound. From spending a week studying Jewish mysticism with an artist in Tsfat, to celebrating my 23rd birthday in a Bedouin tent with new Israeli and Arab friends in Eilat, I experienced culture, identity, religion, and humanity in ways I could never have imagined. And I began to delve into the many different ways to embody and celebrate being Jewish, in unique personal, societal, and religious ways.
While living in Jerusalem and participating in the WUJS program–where I took classes on subjects such as “The Arab/Israeli Conflict” and “The History of Zionism”—I began to work with a group of interfaith, independent leaders: “The Jerusalem Peacemakers.” Through my association with this exceptional group, I had opportunities that further opened my eyes and my mind in profound ways. I accompanied an Arab leader from the Mount of Olives to an Orthodox Jewish wedding in the settlement of TeKoa, conducted interviews with an Uzbekhi Sheikh on the Via Dolorosa, and participated in an event called “The Big Hug,” which brought together people of all religions and backgrounds in an effort to inspire each individual to create harmony on any level possible.
I continued to travel within the complicated city of Jerusalem, where so many people’s prayers and hopes are directed, and far outside of my immediate surroundings and my comfort zones. Each new experience expanded my journey of discovering who I am as a person and as a Jew. I attended Shabbat services in the Haredi area of Mea Shearim, wailed at the Western Wall, and sat on Mount Herzl with families of lost soldiers on Yom Hazikaron. I walked to Bethlehem from my apartment and explored the ancient city, spent time sipping tea with Palestinian rug dealers in the Old City, and sampled hummus in Abu Gosh. I marched in solidarity in the Gay Pride Parades in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, spent hours tasting olives and fresh baked challah and halva in the many shuks, and attended countless art shows, outdoor concerts, movie screenings, and book/food/music festivals.
I lived life as fully as possible. Through constant challenges, as a Jew, as a woman, as an American, and as a person struggling with identity and meaning, I continued to search and discover and persevere and founder. My journey is far from over, as I am instilled with a need to learn and explore each layer of my heritage and my identity. And there is so much life yet to be lived.