Sunday, October 19, 2014

My Road Less Traveled

When I look at snap chat videos of my friends hanging out, partying, and happily navigating the post-college NYC lifestyle, a surprising calm washes over me. An inner peace that stems from knowing I am living a decision borne from the inner depths of my being and carried out without a hint of regret. How often do we get to do something that we appreciate as our raison d'ĂȘtre ?

Don’t get me wrong. I miss everybody. It’s only been a month, and I speak to my friends and family often, but I already understand what being "out of the loop” feels like. I would love to hang out with my friends, share stories, crack inside jokes for hours on end, and pass out watching Entourage re-runs. I would love to begin building my career and to start learning the tools of the trade and how to be successful from my role model and best friend. Of course. Looking at pictures and videos of my friends’ partying and my parents playing with my dogs can fill me with a very tangible longing for my family, friends, and my ‘normal’ American life.

 Every once in a  while, I feel so shocked at the decision I’ve made that I briefly think that my imagination has run amok and my Israel experience is all in my head. Obviously, I tell myself, I wouldn’t have moved thousands of miles away, by myself, to hold a gun, stand in the desert, and (from what I hear) eat canned tuna. Indeed, my soon-to-be reality has become so far-fetched that, at times, it ceases to feel real. In these moments, coming back to Earth takes a few seconds. The realization that I really am in Israel and that I will soon be in the IDF crystallizes and I turn into a leaking bundle of nerves as I think about how far from my life plan I have veered.

I am unsettled only momentarily, however, as I realize that despite whatever homesickness, familial longing, and anxiety I am feeling, I never waver in my focus. This is, ultimately, what gives me the surprising calm I spoke of earlier. It’s not the lack of emotional longing, but my resoluteness in spite of that emotional pull, that dictates my ease. Looking at family and friends’ pictures and videos fills me with a calm sense of purpose precisely because I can feel those pangs of longing and still instintively know that my motivation to be here is stronger and more powerful than all of it.

When I was 12 years old, my dad gave me Leon Uris's epic novel, Exodus, with an inscription about what it means to be a Jew and with a note about our people's history. From the first time I read the name Ari Ben Canaan I've been hooked on understanding and protecting this dream. I have read every book, pamphlet, and article about Israel, Zionism, and Jewish history that I could find. I've read journalists I loved, I've read journalists that Menachem Begin would have deemed J.W.T.K (Jews with trembling knees), and I forced myself to read the mostly unfounded biases emanating from our detractors. 

Over the years, my college friends (Jewish and non-Jewish) grew accustomed to me talking about Israel in between watching Lebron dunk on ESPN. Hatikvah emanated from my room before a workout session on more than one occassion. My friends stopped acting surprised when I argued with professors and they would always allow me to finish my thoughts on the way back to the house after class. They definitely learned to embrace my promises (bribes?) of food if they came to my Israeli club events. (Righteously or not, Kappa Sig always made their presence felt at Lehigh Friends of Israel, and as the saying goes, "we need the dues.")

It didn't take long for me to realize that my passion for understanding and discussing Israel and Jewish history and my commitment to do everything in my power (founding an advocacy club, writing a political blog, going to AIPAC)  to ensure the safety of the Jewish people and the Jewish state wasn't fleeting or shallow. It wasn't a college hobby, or a fad that seemed interesting at the time. It was and is an essential part of my personal story . This was the start of my realization that the uniqueness of my passion called for an equally unique and significant way of doing my part and leaving my mark. 

I am utterly content knowing that I am where I should be-doing exactly what I need to do. Regardless of the ups and downs inherent to my soon-to-begin IDF experience, it is downright euphoric to know that I am living out a dream that is so fundamental to who I am as a Drucker, as a Jew, and as a human being.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Rosh Hoshana and Getting Settled

My first three days in Israel were relaxing and productive; I spent time hanging out with my close family friend who I'm staying with in Tel Aviv (until I figure out my long term living situation). I made the necessary arrangements to begin the army process i.e. I had my first interview with the IDF and I learned in greater detail what the process of joining the IDF will entail over the ensuing weeks and months. I walked around and explored beautiful Tel Aviv for hours, trying to speak as much Hebrew as I could muster. Through it all, I was a whirlwind of excitement, energy and nerves as I was eager to get this new adventure going.

Rosh Hoshanna, the Jewish New Year, began Wednesday night, three days after I arrived in Israel. Throughout the summer I had kept in touch with a nice Israeli man that I had met at a conference in  July, and so upon my arrival to Israel he invited me to spend the holidays with his family in Haifa. I was excited!

After an easy hour-long train ride to Haifa, my new friend picked me up at the train station and drove me to his beautiful home on Mt. Carmel and introduced me to his family. It was the start of an unbelievable weekend.

On the Wednesday night of Rosh Hoshanna, they had their family (cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents etc.) over for dinner as well as two Russian lone soldiers and myself. I felt blessed to be part of such a special and intimate Rosh Hoshana evening with new family and friends. Within minutes I felt comfortable and at home with the whole crew; they were all so eager to learn about me, hear my story, and make sure I was eating enough (I was...and of course, the food was amazing).

Spending the weekend with such a warm and gracious family alleviated all of the nerves and anxieties I was feeling the first few days after embarking on this radical deviation from my expected life path. It was a warm, familial atmosphere that honestly made me forget that I was thousands of miles away from my family on the holidays.

I spent my days in Haifa with the family's son, daughter, her boyfriend, and their cousin, all of whom I had an amazing time hanging out with.  The son is 20 years old and currently serving in the IDF, and I spent a lot of time getting to know him and his friends throughout the weekend. All of his friends were great, even switching back and forth to english so I could follow the conversation and speak more than just the limited hebrew in my arsenal (though following along all weekend did wonders for my hebrew). We spent a night drinking coffee at a beautiful and picturesque overlook in Haifa. We spent Saturday morning hanging out in a gorgeous natural spring near Nahariah (see picture), jumping in and out of the water, drinking more coffee (yet another reason I love Israel-the crazy amount of coffee available at every occasion) and listening to music (I introduced country music to solid reviews) along the river bank. We enjoyed a delicious hummus lunch in the old Arab city of Akko (I think I have humus running through my veins) and we spent an awesome night at a nightclub right outside of Haifa just to confirm that I still hate/don't get electronic/rave music.

 It was also awesome hanging out with his sister and her boyfriend, both a bit older and currently studying at university (he loved all of the stories and ridiculousness having to do with “frat life"). I became really close with them as well; they had an older brother/sister vibe that made me feel completely at ease in their company to joke around, have fun, and be myself. Upon leaving, they could not have been more gracious and genuine in wanting me to come back as often as possible and to stay at their place (I'm already taking them up on their offer for Sukkot this week!)

I left from my weekend in Haifa knowing that I had met my “adopted Israeli family” and that I gained some amazing new friends. Living in a new place on your own can be scary and seem overwhelming at times…knowing that I have such great people that I can lean on, stay with, and feel like a part of the family with, is comforting beyond words.

I’ve spent the past few days taking care of some more army bureaucracy type stuff, all of which, thus far, has been easier than I anticipated (though it was certainly frustrating at times). I’ve taken care of the official Mahal (foreign volunteer) forms and signatures, received my army Visa (which only took 4 hours) and now I’m waiting for my Tzav Rishon (first army draft notice) from the IDF itself. I’ve also begun a pre-army training program that helps prepare Lone Soldiers physically for the rigors of getting into combat units (specifically special forces units), for which there are tryouts.  So far the workouts have been tough, but I’ve loved every second of them, as I realize each one is taking me one step closer to my dream. I’m also in the process of looking for a kibbutz to move into for the foreseeable future and I may be doing another pre-army training program as well, though I’ll save those details for my next post.

It feels weird at times being disconnected from life in America and my family and friends...especially for me. I was the kid at camp that was homesick and missed my parents my SECOND summer away. I've always bounced every aspect of my life off my dad; throughout college I spoke to my mom on a tri-daily basis; and there's nobody I would rather hang out with then my sister Gabby. That's why it's strange that I really haven't gotten homesick or down about how far away I am from all of the people in my life or how long it will be until I am home and back in something approaching my comfort zone. But at the same time, it's not strange. Because, being here, right now, feels right in every way; I feel at ease and I feel at home. Knowing that I will soon get to do my part in defending the Jewish state, that I will be a part of a legacy that has inspired me and been at the core of my identity for so long, fills me with an intensity, determination and sense of purpose that I wouldn't trade for anything.

On Monday night, I was training at the Namal in Tel Aviv…with the beautiful Tel Aviv beach line in front and the exquisite skyscrapers of Ramat Gan at my back. As I looked at the sky for a brief second, I was emotionally blown away. It felt like I was living a dream. At that moment, I was training with Jews from France, Australia, Russia and America who all came to Israel to defend our people, our homeland, and our history. While not yet in the army, at that moment, I understood.

I am training and fighting to defend the Jewish people. I am living the Zionist dream.

Shana Tova Chaverim.

My Flight to Israel

As anyone who has traveled on El-Al (the Israel national airlines) knows, before you go through security, you must speak with an El-Al security representative. He (or she) asks you an assortment of questions about why you’re going to Israel, whether you have family there, if you’ve been there before etc. They’re rather direct in letting you know that they’re doing all of this to ensure that you are not a security threat to the flight or to the state of Israel upon arriving. For people unaccustomed to this, it can be a bit jarring and disorienting to find yourself acting defensive for no discernable reason.

I have always loved this.

Israel understands that there are too many people out there that want to terrorize and (ultimately) destroy Israel and the Jewish people. The fact that El-Al is the safest airline in the world, despite being the most threatened, is a testament to the resolve and capability of the Jewish state to defend her people.

It is more than just this though.

Getting to the airport and speaking with El-Al security, wherever you are in the world, is a person’s first tangible encounter with the reality of Jewish sovereignty. With Jewish responsibility. With the fact that the Jewish people, finally, after 2,000 years of helplessness, have both the will and the means to defend our families and our eternal homeland. Jewish security no longer means vulnerability, appeasement or an unfounded hope in the goodness of others. It means having the strength and the courage to independently ensure our own security and our own freedom. This largely subconscious understanding together with the knowledge that I will soon touch down in Eretz Israel has always filled my heart with pride as I began my Israel travels: the whole experience is a microcosm of Zionism.

This time was even more special. Explaining to the security guy my story and why I was traveling to Israel, he looked me in the eyes, gave me a firm handshake and a hug, and said, “Thank you for what you are doing. We need more people like you. Good luck and stay strong.” It was a heartwarming welcome and I was held temporarily speechless by such a relatively emotional outburst from a  traditionally stoic security agent. It made me even more resolute in my commitment to Israel, and it eased some of the anxieties I was feeling. I was doing the right thing. 

For days leading up to the move, I had been nervous, emotional, and a bit shell struck…as in holy shit I’m really going through with this. It wasn’t just something I was talking about or thinking about anymore: I was literally getting on a plane in 2 days. I was really excited to finally get to Israel, but I was also anxious as hell to see how I would cope with everything. 

That moment with the security guard and then seeing the giant El-Al plane through the airport window, with the Blue star of David proudly and defiantly perched upon its wing was something I will always remember: The intensity of my dream to do my part in defending Israel and the Jewish people was crystal clear at that moment. Waiting in the airport, with my bags draped over my shoulders, I felt steeped in our people’s history.

I thought of all of the idealistic Jews from all over the world, over the past 150 years, who left their homes and their lives determined to contribute to the Zionist dream, defend the Jewish people, and rebuild the Jewish homeland.  I thought of Mickey Marcus, an American Jew (and West Point graduate) who became the first general of a Jewish army in 2,000 years and who gave his life defending the new born state of Israel. I thought of the late Michael Levin, a hero of mine, who returned to Israel during the second Lebanon War to be with his brothers, despite already completing his service and being back home in America.

I thought of the Jews from Arab lands that fled persecution with nothing but the clothes on their back to reach the Jewish homeland. I thought of the Ethiopians that held onto their Judaism throughout the centuries and whose dreams were finally realized as they were rescued to the safe haven of the homeland. I thought of the Yemenites and Operation Red Carpet. I thought of the hundreds of thousands of Russians that immigrated to Israel upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and I thought of the record number of French Jews that are currently on their way to the Jewish state against a renewed backdrop of Anti-Semetism.  In that moment, Jewish and Israeli history were gripping. Everything else was details. Background music.  

This love of Israel and my fundamental belief in the truths of Zionism is what led me down this path and its what will allow me to overcome all the tough moments I am certain to endure throughout my service. But while I think this passion is necessary to endure as a Lone Soldier, there are tons of other reasons why Americans join the IDF. Even for me, there are other benefits that complement my Zionist motivation; primarily the challenge of having to prove my mettle in such a fundamental way. I've had a pretty cushy American life (camp, sports, college), and I know I am lucky to have had such a fun and loving childhood. This next chapter will be a change. It will be brutal at times. The IDF will be by far the most physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging 18 months I've ever experienced. I will have to to suffer and endure, become mentally tougher, fight for myself, and go past my breaking point in order to succeed. I will have to dig deep to really find out what I'm made out of.

I can't wait to find out.

As my dad is fond of saying, “When your why is strong enough, you’ll figure out the how.”

I know my Why. It is strong enough.

Welcome to Eretz Israel.