Shalom, shalom. It feels like I was in Israel a couple weeks ago, but I guess it’s been almost three months now. What did happen a few weeks ago was the Jewish Federation asked me to speak about my Birthright experience at a big fundraiser. I thought I’d share it here with you as well.
A little background on me; I’m a Jew by choice. I converted two years ago on July 23. I was introduced to Judaism when I moved to Los Angeles from my small town about 10 years ago. I had a boyfriend on and off for 3 years that was Jewish and his father welcomed me into his life. He invited me to observe Shabbat (teaching me the prayers for candle lighting), Seder dinners, and wished me “Lila Tov.” I took it upon myself to take a History of Judaism class while studying at CSUN. I didn’t want to be ignorant of their religion. After we broke up I felt myself longing for Shabbats and I continued to fast on Yom Kippur. Something inside of me felt connected with Judaism. I became known as the “honorary” Jew among my friends until about three years ago when I thought seriously about converting. I didn’t want to convert because I was getting married. I already knew I wanted to be Jewish for me, have a Jewish home, and one day raise a Jewish family. So I took classes and converted. That was two years ago, which technically meant I had aged out of Birthright. With the encouragement of my friends and a couple Shabbat dinners where I happen to meet one of the ladies who runs Birthright, I decided to apply and see what would happen. That was the best decision I’ve made in a very long time. I embarked on a journey with 38 total strangers. Goal: Jews wanting to see our homeland.
Here are just some of my highlights.
Tzfat. This city is beyond beautiful to the eye. Bright blue railings, awnings, and doors sprinkle the city which is my absolute favorite color. While there, we visited the Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue and learned about a missile shard missing a congregation because they were bowing during prayer. I circled back to the hole in the wall because I was in total shock. I wanted to reach out and touch it. I wanted to feel the miracle that rested in front of my eyes. We listened to a kind gentleman discuss his path to Kabbalah, someone who moved from Michigan to Israel and lived a very different life prior. I was particularly intrigued when he talked about how names can change a person; especially as a convert I was able to choose my Hebrew name. I picked Ahava (אהבה-which means love) since my given name Cherie means “my love, sweetheart” in French. I wanted to stick with something that felt like me. I’m a firm believer in all things love and Ahava claimed me.
Jaffa. Another beautiful small town where our guide took us on a walking graffiti tour that was incredible. I don’t see myself as a “creative” person, so I admired seeing these different images all over the city. Our guide took us to this gorgeous view point overlooking the Mediterranean and Tel Aviv. He also brought the most amazing hummus for us to try. I wish hummus like that existed in LA.
One of my greatest highlights of the entire trip was our lunch. This day a girlfriend sat next to me on the bus ride there as we hadn’t spent much time getting to know each other yet. She started telling me about how this guy tracked her down at our hotel and said he was a really close family friend. Sounds crazy, huh? Well story is, his father survived Auschwitz with my girlfriend’s grandfather. I didn’t want to be rude when she told me this, but I eagerly asked to tag along and she quickly said yes as she had no idea what to say to him. He took us to a great lunch spot of falafel and hummus in the flea market of Jaffa. We learned how his father moved my friend’s grandfather from one bunk to a higher, less visible bunk because her grandfather was sick. It’s quite possible that he survived because of this man’s father. Powerful and incredible story. Afterwards he took us to a small café for a cup of nana and coffee. He and I played shesh besh (backgammon) where he won in three minutes flat. Mind you, I’d become quite the champion on the bus, earning mad respect from the Israelis. Thanks again to my girlfriend who taught me how to play years ago.
Jerusalem. I was lucky enough to visit the Wall twice while in Israel, once during Birthright and another when I extended my trip. My first visit was on Shabbat which happened to also be the last Friday of Ramadan. It was a bit nerve racking to see so many people in one place as we snaked through the city to our sightseeing places, but also quite beautiful to see different ethnicities and religions. One of the Israelis walked up to the Wall with me, informing me of the dos and don’ts of being at the wall, and then she gave me space as I finished the final approach. When I was about two inches from the Wall, I started crying. My mind wandered as I experienced many emotions of happiness, a sense of release, sadness, confusion, feeling at home, and excitement. Another Israeli had prepared me for this, but I had no idea how deeply I would be affected. My second trip was on a Wednesday at 9:30pm, complete opposite of my first experience. Old Jerusalem was quiet and empty as I walked through. This time I spent an hour thinking, thanking and praying. I watched as a huge Birthright group gathered near the Israeli flag made up of smaller groups wearing different colored shirts; red, orange, green, blue, and purple. Slowly they started to sing and dance which made me smile. I love seeing people come together like that.
Tel Aviv. It almost felt like I wasn’t on vacation since I did normal day to day stuff; I went to the dog park, saw a movie, went to the beach, and met friends at Shuk Ha’Carmel nearly every day, had dinners and went out. Tel Aviv just felt like home, minus the humidity and the absence of work of course. One of my girlfriends told me I wasn’t allowed to leave Israel without trying chocolate milk in a bag. I finally got this fix while in Tel Aviv and it’s honestly these small things that make me the happiest. I finished my walk home in silence, but with the grin of a four-year-old.
Now, I didn’t go on this trip with expectations. I was too excited to have any, but there were two interconnected things that I was surprised about.
First, I knew about the Israeli soldiers. In my mind I thought “soldiers” meant they would protect us. True (ignorant) confession: I thought they would be circled around us with their guns to guard us at all times. I was pleasantly shocked when this did not happen. Instead, they changed out of their uniforms and into regular clothes shortly after meeting them. They became a part of our group, experiencing Israel with us. They offered us insights while also experiencing their homeland through our eyes. I suppose this is why we travel, to change those ignorant thoughts huh?
A couple weeks before our departure there was an attack at a market in Tel Aviv. Related to the soldiers (and why I thought they would be “guarding” us), I briefly was fearful of traveling to Israel. The media paints such a scary picture of war happening in Israel every day. Insinuating, Israelis live in fear and it’s not safe to go out anywhere. I’m not saying attacks don’t happen. They do all too frequently and in some areas more than others. The sad fact is Israel is ready for these attacks 24/7. Yet, not once did I feel scared or in danger while there. From what I perceived, they live every day to the fullest.
I only but scratched the surface of my beautiful country. I cannot wait to visit again to see and do more while there. Share with me your experience in Israel, be it for Birthright or just a fun trip!