Still in Love

June is the most popular month for weddings; hence a big month for celebrating anniversaries. But this week, I’ve been reminiscing about a very different type of anniversary…an anniversary that marks a personal “once in a lifetime” and the reigniting of a love affair…

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I should confess up front that I’ve been entangled in a forty-year love affair with the State of Israel. Maybe my passion still burns because I don’t live there; like a lover who carries the torch of a long-distance romance. Maybe I remain invested because I methodically plan and schedule yearly visits; like a lover who steals clandestine moments to keep the flame alive. Maybe I am engaged because of regular text messages or phone calls to loved ones and colleagues who live there; like an obsessed lover who needs a daily fix of “I want you” reassurances. Maybe I can’t let go because my reality as an American Jew somehow doesn’t measure up; like a lover who needs the affair because it makes life worth living.

To be fair, my affair with Israel was not “love at first sight.” From the moment I stepped onto the tarmac, the people, the language, the food, the culture, the sounds and all of the complexities that define Israel barraged my senses in uncomfortable and unfamiliar ways. And, despite being only ten at the time, it was clear to me that we weren’t in “Kansas” anymore. Yet strangely, I somehow felt embraced and welcomed by this country presented to me as my Jewish homeland.

Over the three years that my family lived in Israel, however, my love for it grew deeper and stronger. It was there, during my middle school years, that I earned small doses of independence from my parents and became my own person. It was then that I first discovered love and shared that first special kiss with a boy in my class. It was with my Israeli friends and family that my Jewish heritage and identity were allowed to flourish outside of home and synagogue walls. And although we moved back to the States, these combined experiences became imprinted permanently on my soul and branded upon my heart. An unbreakable bond was established.

And so began the challenge of loving Israel from afar…especially as it and I changed…

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Today I am privileged to work in Atlanta on behalf of the Jewish community. As part of my role, I had the thrilling opportunity to plan and lead a mission to Israel. And although I had no previous experience with planning a trip like this, my personal goal was clear…I wanted people to learn something new about and fall in love with Israel as I had over four decades ago. I was thrilled that about two hundred and forty people signed on (half of whom had never been to Israel before) for this special adventure.

The “Connecting Community Mission” took place this very week last year. It’s funny how I don’t remember the challenging year of planning that led up to it. I don’t recall sweating over complaints or facing unrecoverable disasters during it. (Thank you, Kenes Tours!) I only have heart-swelling, warm memories.

The beautiful Yitzhak Rabin Center was the perfect stage for comedian Benji Lovitt to kick things off and make us laugh about the shocking difference between Atlanta and Israel. Then the engaging Avraham Infeld, President Emeritus of Hillel International, forcefully reminded us that, at the end of the day, we are all family. His message was underscored by the angelic Voices of Peace choir, comprised of Jewish, Muslim and Christian youth. The next evening we joyously danced and sang with lovely Israeli singer Einat Sarouf on the terrace of the Hilton Hotel in Tel Aviv as the golden-pink sun set over the Mediterranean. After breakfast, we were riveted by a candid briefing from the handsome Alon Ben-David, a seasoned senior defense correspondent for Israel’s Channel 10, who updated us on the situation of the three boys who had been kidnapped by terrorists just a few days before. From there we were embraced fully by the mayors and people of our partnership communities of Yokneam and Megiddo where new relationships were formed and past ones renewed. Our Friday Kabbalat Shabbat service at the Western Wall overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, serenaded by the Carlebach Chai singing group, was inviting and moving. And especially for me, our time standing at the Neve Daniel overlook in view of Gush Etzion (the place from which the boys had been kidnapped) and the related history lesson offered by our dramatic guide Abraham Silver still bring a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes.

All in all it was a magical week. I know that our time in Israel changed many participants’ lives – both Atlantan and Israeli. What I didn’t count on was how the experience would only serve to further deepen my feelings and commitment to a place I’ve loved for years.

Even a year later, it all confirms that my affair with Israel is justified and isn’t going to end anytime soon. Happy Anniversary, Darling.

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