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How My Trip to Israel Impacted Me
Ever since Sam and I began seriously dating we dreamed of traveling to Israel together. Sam spent nine months on a gap year program in Israel before his freshman year of college and had been a couple other times with his Jewish day school and summer camp. He was well familiar with the country, its significance and all the wonderful things to experience there whereas I, on the other hand, had only ever been once on an organized 10-day tour with Birthright – an organization that sends young Jewish adults on a free trip to Israel with the goal of connecting young Jews to the land of their people and inspiring them to form a lasting connection of their own. (If you’re eligible and haven’t been, please consider applying!) Birthright is a wonderful opportunity to get a small taste of what Israel has to offer, but it’s just that, a taste, and ever since my trip I’d been hungry for more.
Earlier this year my close college friend Hadassa announced her engagement to the wonderful Manny and shared that their wedding would be in Israel in June. The timing couldn’t be more perfect as Sam and I decided this would be the year we’d finally travel to Israel together, and with our good friend’s wedding taking place during the best time of the year to visit, we really had to make it happen!
I knew this trip would be so much more than a vacation. It was important to me to use our two weeks in Israel as not only a respite before an important and busy time for The Neon Tea Party but also as an educational opportunity to learn more about the heritage of the Jewish people and the significance of Israel’s existence. I’m happy to report that I’m returning with a deeper understanding of, appreciation for and connection to my people and the Land of Israel than ever before.
Here are my three biggest takeaways from this trip (not including the newfound importance of pizza bourekas and chicken schnitzel in my life 😉 ).
A MEANINGFUL CONNECTION TO THE LAND
I’m not a hugely political person – that is to say I’m not the best when it comes to staying on top of current events and I’m less active in having dialogues on the topic than I’d like to be. However, I posses unwavering ideologies based on the fair treatment, equality, freedom and safety of all people. Having been a bit rusty on the current political climate of Israel, I arrived with many hard-hitting questions related to my personal beliefs, as I wanted to form my own un-biased opinion on the country’s hotly debated past and present.
I won’t get into too many details about my questions and subsequent answers, however I will share my big takeaway after speaking with numerous residents from all different backgrounds, which is this: Israel is a complicated place, as we all know. And just like any other country, you can love a land without agreeing with its currently politics or the people running the show. But I feel a tremendous amount of gratitude for the existence of a Jewish state – all the good and the sad that went into bringing the dream of it into existence and continues to keep it safe. Israel is a genuine homeland for my people – a people who have been exiled time and again, dispersing all across the world, persecuted for our beliefs. It is truly our home in this world and a homeland for which I feel I’ve been searching my whole life.
DESIGN AS PART OF JEWISH HERITAGE
I was raised in a secular Jewish home, which sounds like an oxymoron but the term basically means individuals and families who are Jewish in heritage but observe only some (or none) of the Jewish laws and traditions. For as long as I can remember, I’ve yearned for a deeper sense of heritage beyond the hot dogs and baseball fandom of my Chicago-based family. (Though don’t get me wrong, the Cubs will always hold a special place in my heart.)
It’s for this reason I learned more about Judaism in college, made the personal decision at age 19 to keep kosher, spent more time with modern orthodox friends, and married a guy with a more dynamic Jewish upbringing than my own. It’s also for this reason that I explore heritages beyond my own including studying Spanish and French throughout my schooling, immersing myself in the cultures of my non-Eastern European Jewish friends, traveling as much as I can afford, and building a business whose ultimate goal is to educate on handicrafts from around the world.
As I’ve explored the design traditions of other cultures like Mexico and India, two countries dear to my heart in their own ways, I have felt a void in the inability to discuss the design heritage of my own people. While I’d known that there is no shortage of Jewish artists painting scenes of the Bible and the landscapes of Israel, as well as talented craftspeople creating beautiful ritual items such as mezuzahs, menorahs and kiddish cups, I’ve largely written off these decorative arts as too specific to Judaism to celebrate through The Neon Tea Party’s secular platform.
Walking the halls of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem just the other day, I was awestruck at the side-by-side comparisons of the same objects, such as those listed above, crafted in different styles based on the location of the Jewish community from which they originate. Due to the dispersion of Jews around the world, wherever we settled – Europe, North Africa, Turkey, Afghanistan, Iran, India, South America, the United States – we’ve fused our traditions with the local culture, resulting in a beautiful spectrum of design heritage that represents the whole of the Jewish people.
For example, a synagogue has only a few design requirements: an ark to hold the Torah when it’s not in use, a platform from which the Torah can be read, and seats in which the congregation can sit. Other than that, the space is a blank slate that is totally up to design interpretation. The results of the Jewish populations’ dispersion around the world are myriad different synagogue styles that reflect the sensibilities of not only the time period in which they were built, but the locations of the buildings themselves. A synagogue in Venice, Italy could boast gilded ceilings, typical of ornate Italian classic architecture, while one in India can feature carved local wood and colorful paintings in the swirling, nature-inspired style of the region.
The same idea applies to examples of Judaica (objects used for Jewish rituals and traditions), traditional clothing such as modest dresses and head coverings for women and men, decorative and ceremonial jewelry, and other items for daily life and special occasions.
While these decorative items are not examples of art forms that belong solely to Jews per se, we have a rich, unique arts and crafts heritage that reflects the vast array of places in which we settled. Like myself the Jewish people are, in the truest sense, citizens of the world! I am beyond-words excited to explore this idea more and find ways to educate about the handicrafts of my own people through The Neon Tea Party.
A GREATER SENSE OF BELONGING IN THIS WORLD
The two previous lessons tie into my third overarching takeaway, which is that I now feel a greater sense of belonging and purpose in this world. This is a lofty statement, I know, but what I mean is that after this trip, I feel not only a stronger connection to the contemporary Jewish community but also a tie to past and future generations of Jews. I feel that I am an important link in ensuring the continuation of the Jewish people, a nearly 6,000 year-old people who have been exiled from our homes, dispersed across many lands, threatened and killed time and again, and yet we’re still going strong – possibly stronger than ever. I now appreciate this miracle on a much deeper level, taking from it a sense of purpose in helping my family connect with our Jewish heritage on a greater level as well.
At various moments on our trip, I imagined Sam and myself returning to Israel with our parents, siblings and one day, G-d willing, our children. How special it will be to together experience the country of our ancestors and to impart in our kids a deep appreciation for the history and traditions of our people. My hope is that they will form their own connection to the land and understand the painstaking effort that went into making its existence possible.
Shalom, ahava v’neon,
P.S. I’m working on a separate travel guide post detailing everything we did and loved in Israel. Stay tuned!