Years ago, in 2011, I traveled to Israel. At the time, we thought that we were close to completing our conversion process and it was important to me to see Israel before that happened. I wanted to see the land of my prayers and see if I felt a connection to it. To me, to convert without having visited Israel would have felt a little bit like marrying someone you’d never seen in person, never gone on a date with or had coffee with. We needed to meet before I felt ready for full commitment.
So, despite my family’s misgivings, Mr. Safek and I planned a trip to Israel. As part of this, I went over first, spending a week at an Orthodox women’s Seminary in Jerusalem and then my husband joined me for a second week. It wasn’t easy to justify the expense, but I really did feel it was important enough that we just had to do it.
I wasn’t sure how I’d feel when I stepped off the plane.
Growing up in the US, far from any Jewish community, I had a lot of misconceptions about Israel. I didn’t know why anyone would fight over a “piece of desert.” In my mind, Israel was a dead place where nothing could grow…just the ruins of past civilizations and current bloody conflict. I often wondered why Americans should care about that part of the world, so far away. I also believed what I’d seen in the media, so I had a pretty negative view overall of the Israeli government.
When I met Mr. Safek, I was surprised at his passionate support of Israel, that he’d even seriously considered serving in the IDF as a young man. As I met more Jews, I soon began to hear more and more perspectives that were so different from what I’d heard in the media. I met Israelis in my local Jewish community and soon began to love their unique cultural quirks. I still was skeptical when they talked about farming in a placed I’d always assumed was nothing but sand. I began to question everything I thought I knew about this place I’d never visited.
And I realized that I needed to visit Israel and better understand it before I would feel ready to call myself a Jew.
My trip to Israel was completely mind-blowing, in that way that only travel abroad can be. I stayed in the homes of Israelis, not hotels. I met people who were related to my Jewish friends in the US. I studied Torah in Jerusalem next door to a mosque. I walked every quarter of the Old City and road the bus to Ranana to stay with friends from an online group there. I met their sons serving in the IDF.
And I ate some of the best fruits and vegetables I’ve ever had, farm fresh from our own garden included.
I saw a desert blooming and a young, vibrant people in an ancient land. I saw how much more complicated everything about the political situation is there than I could ever have imagined. The Israel I’d seen in the news and pictures was two dimensional and flat. The Israel I visited was all around me and full of color and nuance. I cried and laughed and ate and I left reluctantly, my shirt still torn from my first visit to the kotel.
I’ve been fortunate enough to travel and live abroad in my life, but no other place touched me the way Israel did. I enjoyed being an exchange student in Japan and I had an amazing year living in France and traveling Europe, but none of these ever really had a hold on me after I left. I was happy also to come home to the US and after a month or two, I slipped easily back into a contented life as an American.
In the years since, Israel is pretty much always somewhere in my mind. I have friends there that I check in with each week. When Israeli visitors come to Alaska, I’m happy to welcome them as more like cousins I haven’t met yet than strangers. When people speak angrily about Israel, more often than not never having stepped foot there themselves, I feel the same defensiveness I would for a family member. I even view aliyah as a possibility, one day, as much as I’m already tired of moving.
I don’t pretend to have answers for the real political issues Israel faces and I also don’t pretend to agree with everything the Israeli government does or says any more than I would agree with everything the US government does or says. Still, I love Israel in much the same way as I love the US. I love it for its highest aspirations and its best intentions. I love it for its quirks and its people. I love it because it too is home in my heart. I love it because of what it represents…that never again will Jews be without a home to return to if the world again becomes a frightening place. I also love it for its rich history as well as its bright future.
I’m unapologetic in my love as much as I am in my love for a humanly imperfect man. My husband doesn’t need to be perfect for him to earn my love…he just has to be himself.