Last year I visited Israel for the first time through Hasbara Fellowships. My friend Abby who encouraged me to apply said visiting Israel and learning about the modern political issues facing the country would be a life changing experience.
Now, I work in politics so I'm typically skeptical about such statements, but I decided to go on Hasbara rather than Birthright because at heart I am an academic and wanted a trip with a strong educational component.
It turned out that for all the knowledge I gained about Israeli politics, what affected me most about the trip was not what I saw in the classroom, but instead what I saw in the reaction of one of my friends.
Leon was the only Russian Jew on the trip, and had been searching for some link between his version of Judaism and what he saw in Israel. It came in the form of a small Russian restaurant we found after a long search through the streets of Tel Aviv.
We walked in, sat down, and were handed the menus. They were not in English, and they were not in Hebrew. Leon's pride at being able to order in his native tongue and then show me the proper way to eat the foods he was raised on cemented why all the classroom knowledge was so important.
I came away from Israel knowing its history, knowing all the facts about the current political situation, but most important, feeling, deep in my soul, that Israel was a place where any Jewish soul could belong.
I want to come back this summer to learn more about the spiritual side of that great connection. Over the past year I have become even more interested in the spiritual side of my Jewish identity. It seems that out of my political learning in Israel last summer, I have begun to care more about my religious learning; to paraphrase Hatikvah, with an eye toward Zion, my Jewish soul yearns more and more each day.
If all goes to plan I will be studying in Israel later this summer and fall at the University of Haifa, to improve my Hebrew and learn more about Israeli history as I experience it. I will be finishing my college career in the spring at Hebrew University as part of a study abroad program through USC, having spent an entire year in Israel by the time I graduate. That is my hope, to be a student in my own land, ארץ ציון וירושלים (The land of Zion and Jerusalem).