Todah, Israel. You Surprised Me.

Heart-to-HeartBy: Elizabeth Schuman

Everyone asks me about the Heart to Heart mission to Israel. Was it incredible? Did you visit the Wall? How about Tel Aviv? Did you climb Masada? Wasn’t the food the best you’ve ever tasted?

Well, yes.

Jerusalem and the Wall are breathtaking, with history you can feel, see and touch. Tel Aviv pulses with creative energy. And the food is a locavore’s delight—with fruit (persimmon!), cheeses, fish, breads and vegetables that lovingly illustrate the bounty of our planet.

And then I tell them more.

I tell people that the light is different in Israel. That the colors, sounds and sights are more pronounced, richer and deeper. That it is as if you’ll never see or understand it all, but are utterly compelled to try. That when our tour guide Mikal said to us, “You are standing in history. Welcome home,” it was all that the group needed to hear.

Israel, a country the size of New Jersey, is complex, diverse and magical. The Jewish story rubs elbows with the Christian and Muslim stories. Israelis are fourth-generation citizens and Israelis made aliyah last week. Israel is filled with opinions, ideas and controversy. This is not a one-size-fits-all country.

We learned about homecoming from Ethiopian Jews. Boarding planes for the first time, they carried few possessions on the way to Israel, holding to their Jewish faith as they turned to organizations such as the Ethiopian National Project and the Beit Canada Absorption Center, gentle places designed to ease the transition to Israel.

We met Eli, who was 11 when he left his village and made his way to a refugee camp in the Sudan and eventually to Israel as one of the 14,000 Ethiopian Jews on the planes during Operation Solomon, a 1991 rescue mission. Today, he is a teacher. We met Yityish “Titi” Aynaw, who came here as an orphan, completed school, served in the Army and is now the first Miss Israel of Ethiopian descent.

In Ashkelon, Baltimore’s partner city, we saw how the birth of volunteerism began with a simple idea: involve teenagers. Today, the AMEN volunteer program involves more than 6,000 teenagers across the city. One of the program’s many projects? Wings of Krembo. It’s a social program for children with special needs, led by – you guessed it – some of the dynamic teens in the AMEN program.

We learned about the divide between the ultra-religious and secular and how Israelis are working to bridge their differences through initiatives like Mafteach, which helps Haredi Jews gain skills for the workforce. We met young girls living at Orr Shalom, a residential home for girls taken from their families because of severe abuse or neglect. We saw how kindness, determination and care work their magic to overcome unimaginable beginnings.

We met movers and shakers. Jerusalem’s Deputy Mayor Ofer Berkowitz sounded like any big city mayor with his concerns about residents, jobs and infrastructure, albeit in a city defined by millennia of cultures and religions. Dana Weiss, a leading Israeli journalist, shared her take on the rough-and-tumble complexities of Israeli politics. We met artists, executives, community leaders and members of the Knesset. We spent time on a kibbutz, seeing how community transformed parched land into farms.

As mothers, we saw our children in the faces of the young Israeli soldiers. By chance, hundreds were assembled outside Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum, on the day we visited. Later that week, we visited an army base, hearing soldiers’ stories of grandparents and family who died in concentration camps. The Holocaust is in these soldiers’ DNA. For these soldiers – for this country – never again means just that. Protecting the Jewish homeland pays homage to those who had nowhere else to go more than seventy years ago.

I tell people about saying Shehechayanu as we overlooked Jerusalem, about how we climbed Masada and slathered ourselves with mud as we floated in the Dead Sea. We explored Tel Aviv, meeting innovators and futurists. We walked through the Old City and journeyed through the Four Quarters. We met incredible Israelis devoted to their country and one another. And, yes, we did a little shopping.

Before, I never understood why people return time and again to Israel. I do now.

What we learned is that Israel is far deeper than anything you can envision –a complicated, joyous juxtaposition of faith, family, people, home and geography. Along the way, we discovered that a land a world away is, indeed, our home.

Todah. Thank you, Israel.

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