by Shira Finkelstein
Ten years ago, I couldn't have found Israel on a map. Nor did it matter to me. I was a Jewish American, not an American Jew.
A native Marylander, I grew up in a suburb of Washington, D.C. and went through the Montgomery County public school system. I was one of just a handful of Jews in my classroom, a fairly typical high-achieving student.
Meanwhile, my parents, like all good Jewish parents, dragged me to Hebrew school several times a week. I was convinced it was some form of cruel punishment. We attended High Holiday services and the synagogue's cotton candy-laden Purim festivals. A freshman in high school, I was indifferent toward Israel.
That began to change when my best friend invited me to an Orthodox Jewish weekend retreat. "Please? I'll win a free iPod!" she begged me. And so I went.
During those three days, I discovered there was a lot more to Judaism than I could have imagined. For the first time, I felt like I was really learning about Jewish values and rituals, and the reasons for doing them. It felt both foreign and familiar at the same time. I realized my quiet longing for something more wasn't so strange after all: there were many others just like me.
I began learning more about Judaism and asking difficult questions; each answer led me to more questions. The learning gave me a rush in a way I'd never experienced, and it also helped me learn more about myself.
My parents thought I had joined a cult or gone crazy. I couldn't blame them: I'd adopted the modest clothing style worn by Orthodox Jews and looked as if I was talking to my food when I quietly blessed it. The only thing missing in their eyes was the Kool-Aid. I faced an internal conflict: Should I remain secular for my parents' sake, or follow my passion for Judaism?
I chose the latter, and it wasn't easy. My family saw my pursuit of Judaism as a form of rebellion. It was heartbreaking on both sides. As I strove for independence, they tried to hold me closer. But as much as they had raised me to value secular pursuits, they had also taught me to be independent-minded. I had to remind myself every day to trust my intuition and lead my own life, despite what others - even my parents - might think or say.
While my friends in public high school planned for college, my friends at Jewish schools talked about their gap years in Israel. I was stuck somewhere in the middle, unsure which path to take: My high school advisers pushed me toward college, while my Jewish mentors encouraged me to go to seminary in Israel. I eventually applied to a seminary outside Jerusalem and was accepted on the spot. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
Upon landing at Ben-Gurion Airport, I didn't feel any different - at first. As I made the trek into town, the forested hills reminded me of the prophecies about the Jews returning to Israel and the land blossoming. Tears welled up. As I got closer to Jerusalem, I witnessed a landscape unlike anything I'd seen before, and my heart ached with passion and excitement. I was home.
Still, I expected to see bloodshed and worried that bomb attacks lurked behind every corner. Those things never materialized. I gradually realized that everything I had been taught to envision about Israel was wrong. There were people speaking seemingly every language, verdant gardens and parks, modern houses and apartments, plenty of high-rises and other real estate dedicated to high tech and research.
Through my program, I met politicians and lobbyists, school children and parents, natives and immigrants. While these individuals often acknowledged that Israel faces serious and complicated issues, what stood out to me was their love for their country and its people. I felt an intense sense of unity that I had never experienced anywhere else. Soon, my love for Torah became intertwined with my feelings for the land. I was unable to imagine my Judaism without Israel, and Israel without my Judaism.
Now, years later, my family has come to accept my way of life, and has embraced it. We even have Shabbat dinner together with my Orthodox fiance.
While still living in Israel, I decided I wanted to give back to my new home and decided I would devote my life to protecting Israel and helping the Jewish people. I began fulfilling that pursuit this summer by working as an intern for The Israel Project in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit organization that seeks to provide accurate information about Israel and the Middle East to the media, leaders and public.
Through all this I made by greatest discovery: I am no longer a Jewish American; I am an American Jew. My life took a drastic change when I decided to follow my passion and trust in myself, and there is no greater satisfaction than believing in yourself. Trust me.
Shira Finkelstein grew up in Gaithersburg. She is a rising senior at the University of Maryland, College Park where she is majoring in communications. She is spending the summer working as a Media Fellow for The Israel Project in Washington, D.C.