Editor’s note: TJP intern Rosie Bernstein, a rising Yavneh junior, spent six weeks in Israel on Bnei Akiva’s Mach Hach Ba’aretz program. This is the last weekly report about her experience.
By Rosie Bernstein
The last few weeks have been the busiest five weeks of my life.
I ran around the Land of Israel and saw it top to bottom, right to left and everything in between. I got very little sleep, took almost mediocre showers and slept in the Middle East desert with no air conditioning on many occasions.
But as I sat on the plane looking out the window as I made my final descent into Dallas, no part of me would trade this experience for the world. And to say that the past five weeks have changed my life does not even begin to describe how I feel.
Going into Mach Hach Ba’aretz, I was absolutely terrified. It was my first time getting a passport, going on an international flight and eating airplane food. It was the longest I’d ever been away from home and the only time I had ever left Dallas alone.
I didn’t know with whom I’d be traveling, what the counselors would be like and what the program had in store. I worried about the small stuff like not having enough clothes, not liking the food and my fluent Hebrew not being as fluent as I thought it was after all. I worried about homesickness, jet lag and getting sick from the water. But none of these fears even came close to touching the trepidation that was hanging over my head and had been since I signed up for Mach Hach: What if I step off the plane and feel nothing?
The rest of my journey was one incredible experience after another, each one more amazing, inspiring and uplifting than the last. And throughout each experience, I felt “it.”
My whole life, people have been telling me how amazing Israel is. I learned about it in the classroom at school. I heard my friends share their experiences from family vacations. People in my community moved to Israel. My parents went and came back with stories and pictures. Everyone always talked about the feeling — about “it.” I never knew what “it” was, but my whole life it was something I wanted to experience for myself.
I did, and I felt “it” everywhere.
I first felt “it” at the Kotel on my first night in Israel when I took off my blindfold and lifted my gaze to the Western Wall. And then again as I packed food for Israel’s hungry. And then again praying in the ruins of an ancient synagogue, a synagogue that our nation’s greatest sages may have prayed in, a synagogue that has survived through the good times and the bad, watching the Jewish people grow.
I even felt “it” while doing activities in the heat with the sun beating down on me, for I knew I was experiencing the same Israel as my ancestors thousands of years ago. I felt “it” again while stranded on the side of the road in a smelly Arab village, as first a plain Jewish man, then four Israeli soldiers and then two police officers, stopped on the highway to pray with us and stand with us.
I felt “it” again while on a kayak in the cool Jordan River, as a random Israeli family jumped in our boat and began a water fight, two groups of Jews, strangers on the outside, but family nonetheless. I felt “it” again on Masada at sunrise and again while floating in the salty waters of the Dead Sea. And then again while observing the beautiful wildlife of a Red Sea nature reserve.
I felt “it” again while placing rocks on David Ben-Gurion’s grave, so grateful to him for all of his work to ensure I could be in Israel more than 50 years later, feeling the power of the land. “It” hit me especially hard while welcoming in Shabbat on the top of a hill as the sun went down, the same way that the creators of the meaningful Shabbat services did so long before me.
I felt “it” again with my hands in the mud in an Ethiopian village, eating kosher sushi in Jerusalem, pushing my way through the Israeli market on Friday afternoon and while celebrating Shabbat with 350 other members of Mach Hach.
No feeling was stronger than the feeling of mourning over the loss of the Temple while standing over the very place that the Temple was and will be soon, praying and singing with friends and strangers alike.
I felt “it” in the City of David, in the Kotel tunnels and while celebrating the bar mitzvah of a boy I had never met but was so grateful that I shared in his simcha. I felt “it” again as I heard a re-enactment of the establishment of the State of Israel while at Independence Hall and again at Yad Vashem and the Har Herzl cemetery.
I felt “it” while wading through mud caves, touring an old prison in Acco, meeting the only Jew in Pkiin, praying at the grave of our sage Rashbi and hiking in a heat wave.
And finally, I felt “it” at the airport on the last night as I stepped off of Israeli soil for the last time. And although I felt “it” throughout my entire Israel experience, it wasn’t until that moment that I knew what “it” actually was.
The feeling I am describing is something that can only be felt in Israel. It’s different than the amazement of seeing elephants on an African safari. It’s different than the feeling of accomplishment after hiking Mount Everest. And it’s different than the feeling of freedom while cliff jumping off Land’s Ends.
The feeling I am describing is something I didn’t even know existed until I felt it myself, but as soon as I did, I recognized it as the feeling everyone describes.
It’s the feeling of togetherness and unity as you walk down the street anywhere in Israel. You look to your left and see Israeli guys in shorts and a T-shirt with no kippah and to your right and see rabbis and little boys in suits and long coats with payos down to their shoulders. And you know that you are connected by an unbreakable tie with all of them, that you would take a bullet for any of them just as quickly as they would take one for you.
It’s the feeling of praying with your face up against the Kotel and hearing a woman sobbing loudly as she prays just a few feet over. Her sobs don’t bother or disturb you, they inspire you and even though you don’t know her situation or what she’s going through, you pray for her, and you know that her sobs are reaching God’s ears and opening up the gates of Heaven for you.
It’s the feeling I felt the moment I stepped off the plane until the moment I got back on, and every moment in between. The feeling that even though I was in a country that I had never been to in my life, a place where the language was different and the culture was different and the people were different, I immediately felt comfortable.
It’s the feeling that even though I am in my house now, sleeping in my own bed, showering in my own shower, surrounded by my own family, I feel homesick, for I know that Israel is my real home.
She was waiting for me with open arms when I got there, and I know She will be there for me even while I’m here in America. And I know that Israel and her people are anticipating my return and will be waiting again with open arms no matter how long it takes me to get back. And I know the same is true for every Jew from all over the world.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember that we all share the same ancestors and a common history because it isn’t something we see every day. But spending the past five weeks in Israel reminded me that we are all brothers and sisters, and we all share a common home and a common heart.
I look at life with a new perspective. I see people who are different than me with more accepting eyes. I am devoted with a passion to the State of Israel and my fellow Jews.
I will do everything in my power to get back to Israel as soon as I can because I know that I am a better person there.
Israel has touched me in unimaginable ways. It was better than anything I ever imagined it would be.
And I am proud to call Israel my home.