The story of how I ended up in Israel
HOW DID I GET HERE? It has been a pretty crazy journey from growing up in California with relatively minimal Judaism to deciding to build a life in the world’s only Jewish country.
SOME BASICS ON MY UPBRINGING: I grew up in Sacramento, California in a mixed family. One of my parents Jewish, the other Chinese, and both awesome, open, and loving. We celebrated Jewish and Christian holidays - Hanukkah and Passover, Christmas and Easter - all in a very secular way. We also celebrated Chinese New Year in a very American way. It wasn’t that uncommon to see mixed families in Sacramento, so I didn’t think that much of it.
Ironically, I didn’t start to really learn much about Judaism or feel any stronger connection to that part of my identity until I went to Catholic high school. Here I started to explore my spiritual identity and personal faith. I felt a growing interest in my Jewish roots, but I didn’t know what it really meant or a lot about it.
COLLEGE was when I took any first real steps towards trying something Jewish. My sophomore year at college I went to my first shabbat dinner at @hillel. I quickly made my best friends and got really involved. The next thing you know I’m the VP. Simultaneous to my campus involvement I met with different rabbis in Portland and asked them lots of questions. I eventually felt comfortable with Rabbi Zuckerman at Shaarie Torah, a conservative synagogue. I also found myself under the wing of Dorice, the fabulous youth director - who also happened to be the most sparkling, Israeli woman. This was my first Jewish community and I began to learn tons.
COLLEGE WAS WHERE ISRAEL FIRST DISCOVERED ME. The beginning of my junior year we got an Israeli Shaliach. Amos was an emissary from the Jewish agency to bring Israel to our community. Not only did Amos and I become amazingly great friends, he brought the first Israel-related event to our campus. We screened a documentary by Jerusalem U about Israelis and the event was protested. I was shocked and confused. I didn’t understand why this harmless film upset these people enough to want to ruin our event. They didn’t even watch the whole movie! I called up Amos and demanded that we meet for coffee so he could explain the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to me. We could say this is “the spark that lit the flame”. I absolutely had to learn more and so I started learning.
I LEARNED, AND I BECAME ACTIVE. After our movie event was protested my eyes were opened to a culture of anti-israel and often anti-Semitic activity in my campus. The Jewish group didn’t really want to address it. I can’t blame them. Many pro-Israel students, Jewish or not, feel intimidated to confront things like this on their campuses. But Amy and her chutzpah couldn’t be idle. My friend Brittany and I decided to start a new group on campus to bring Israeli culture beyond war and conflict.
Some might say it started a movement. Finally we were creating a positive Israel presence on campus, but it was met with a lot of resistance. Our best events got protested, our posters defaced and ripped down. People who recognized me would take photos of me around campus or refuse to speak to me simply because they knew I was pro-Israel.
I think the pinnacle of this was when I attended a BDS conference on campus, sponsored by the Middle Eastern Studies Dept., and the leader of the Palestinian group tried to ask me to leave because he knew I didn’t support BDS and didn’t want me to know all the plans they were making. Obviously I refused. I had a right to be there like all other tuition-paying students.
FINALLY, I MADE IT TO ISRAEL. My last summer of college I went on my @taglit Birthright trip—a free 10 day trip to Israel for Jews from around the world. And I extended my trip for 2.5 months after the 10 days.
Yes, I had been leading the pro-Israel movement and had not yet been to Israel. Call it my Jewish soul yearning for the east, or an obsessive personality. Either way I was simultaneously excited and nervous to finally see Aretz Israel ( the land of Israel).
The trip was a whirlwind and the rest of that summer even more. I won’t lie. It was a tough summer. I was in a foreign country for the first time in my life, I was traveling alone for most of it, and I was without any real responsibilities for the first time in years.
But that summer I really connected to the land and the people. I spent endless hours in the sun, either soaking up the sea or walking from destination to destination to save a few shekels. I ate delicious food, visited museums and landmarks, and most importantly, interacted with the people. It’s the people of Israel that really made me fall in love.
AFTER THAT SUMMER I KNEW I HAD TO GET BACK TO ISRAEL. I had one quarter left of college and then I was going to find my way back. After asking around what the best options were it became clear that doing a Masa Israel program was the way to go. I signed up for a 5 month internship program and got a grant to help pay my way. I was doing this!
Again, my time in Israel was rewarding, but challenging. I had a great internship at a company that did resource development for nonprofits. Professionally, this fit right in with my goals to work in Jewish and Israel nonprofits. I made great friends on my program and we had so much fun exploring and discovering Israel and ourselves throughout the 5 months.
About 2 or 3 months in I started to have a lot of anxiety and my emotions were out of control. I’d dealt with anxiety and depression all through college, but nothing like this. I was having physiological systems I’d never had before. My heart beating fast and irregular, my whole body buzzing, and so much crying. After an unexpected trip to Terem (the urgent care clinic) it was determined that the new type of birth control I had-a small device inserted into my arm that delivered hormones to my body-was probably the culprit. Through the support of my friends and some others I successfully found a doctor in Israel to remove it for me and also got prescribed new medication for anxiety.
Towards the end of my 5 month program I felt a lot of pressure about whether or not to make Aliyah and felt really unsure. It was a big decision, and the last 5 months had not been so easy. I needed a sign, and I got one. This will sound silly, but Beyoncé and Jay Z announced their On The Run Tour I and I told myself that if I could get tickets then I’d at least be home for that. I’d figure the rest out later. So that’s what I did. I bought Beyoncé tickets and a plane ticket home.
5 DAYS BEFORE I LEFT ISRAEL A WAR STARTED. In July 2014 Israel went to war in Gaza in what is called Operation Protective Edge. I made the decision before the situation was anywhere near a war to go back home, and I’d say my parents were pretty thankful. The 5 days between the beginning of the war and my flight were very nerve wracking. I had one Israeli experience I hoped to never have — running to a bomb shelter when the code red siren rang to signal a rocket had been launched into the area from Gaza.
Oddly enough the war made leaving harder, not easier. While I got on a plane to safety in California all of my Israeli friends were left behind. I landed in Sacramento and was glued to my phone and the television. They were calling thousands from the army reserves, my now ex-boyfriend included, to help. My parents took me on a camping trip and I had anxiety attacks when I didn’t have any cell phone service because I needed to know at every moment what was happening. Physically, I was in America, but obviously my heart and my mind were elsewhere. I had a big decision to make.