The JTS Israel Mission 2003
'Something made me get on that plane...'
By Elana Roth
It may or may not be a good way of starting an article about Israel by telling you that shortly before my last trip I decided that I didn't want to go. In late November, I eagerly signed up for the Jewish Theological Seminary's Mission to Israel along with my sister and several of her friends. The heavily subsidized trip over winter break (plane tickets extendable without penalty) seemed an ideal vacation, and the small condition of having to give speeches and write articles upon my return was certainly no big deal.
But two or three days before my actual departure, I decided that I didn't want to go anymore. I wasn't scared for my safety. I wasn't nervous to be away from home for a week. I had simply forgotten what had prompted me to sign up for the trip to begin with.
My sudden lack of motivation stems from a history of strained feelings for Israel. I, like many other American Jews, have a vexed relationship with Israel. My sister likes giving me a hard time about being a "Diaspora Jew." Being an American with a heightened sense of patriotism, despite the current political issues, I feel strongly that this is my home. I have never wanted to live in Israel. My longest visit was the 5-week portion of my summer on USY Pilgrimage. I have never seen the kind of passion for Israel in me that I see in some of my peers. I have always felt uncomfortable signing petitions, going to rallies, or visiting the AIPAC website in order to send letters to my state representatives. But something made me get on that plane despite my desire to stay home. And that is what I have been trying to pin down.
Two moments on the trip, and one since, have helped me make sense of my indecision. The first was during a tour of Gilo - a neighborhood in the south of Jerusalem that had been under considerable amount of gunfire from the neighboring Arab village up until last Pesah. We saw the sandbags in the windows, the cement walls built to shield residents and the bulletproof glass installed on the south face of the neighborhood.
Return to Gilo
I remembered my previous trip to Israel, in May of 2001, when I had so desperately wanted to get away from New York for the two weeks in between finals and summer session and traveled by myself to Israel for the first time.
I stayed with family friends in Jerusalem for most of that time, and I remember feeling the windows shake when there was a sudden series of loud bangs and pops. I remember my father's best friend asking, "So, how do you like our little war?" Those sounds were coming from the shooting at Gilo.
When I stood outside of Gilo completely unprotected by metal or bulletproof glass, on a beautiful sunny, 70-degree day in the middle of January, I realized how quickly things can change, and how much our perspectives change in the process.
The second thing is something we were told on our first night in Israel, which has haunted me ever since. Rabbi Daniel Gordis spoke to our group, himself an American who made aliyah.
Reshaping my thoughts
I should preface by saying that until this point on the mission we had been lauded and praised ad nauseum for our "selfless actions" and the "personal sacrifices" we made by coming to Israel. Rabbi Gordis correctly pointed out that there was nothing sacrificial about our visit. We were staying in a great hotel, in a great location, eating great food, and all for an extremely low cost. He refused to praise us for what he considered to be our responsibility. He then made an extremely powerful point that helped explain his decision to make aliyah, and a Jew's overall responsibility to visit Israel:
THE IMPORTANT THINGS IN LIFE DON'T COME WITH SAFETY.
We are always engaging in activities and experiences that enrich our lives, and we are always taking risks in the process. Living in Israel and being in Israel should enrich a Jew's life, and doesn't come without risk any more than falling in love comes without the chance of heartbreak.
The final event that reshaped my thoughts occurred a few weeks after the mission with the Columbia Shuttle tragedy. Only in the tragedy did I remember that I was in Israel when Col. Ilan Ramon left for outer space. I remember the excitement in the newspapers about this incredible milestone in Israel's history. Like you heard on the news time and again, Col. Ramon exemplified the Israeli experience. His mother and grandmother survived Auschwitz and his father fought in the War of Independence. He himself served in the Air Force, accumulating over for 4,000 hours of flight time. He was an Israeli in the truest meaning and depth of the word.
"I am not afraid."
In the weeks following the incident, I read as many articles about him as I could find, unable to get it out of my head. He had said in an interview: "The chances an accident would happen in space are very small. As far as safety is concerned, I am not concerned at all. I'm sorry, but I'm not afraid." When I read this particular quote that he gave to the Ma'ariv before departing, Rabbi Gordis's words hit me once again.
The important things in life don't come with safety. Col. Ramon knew this, as any Israeli does, and still pursued his dreams and sought to make his life more complete. I certainly don't mean to tell you by using Col. Ramon as an example that any risk you take is going to end in tragedy. That message wouldn't make me a very good motivator, nor would it adequately communicate what I drew out of these experiences and events. I just mean to point out that we have to keep our obligations and responsibilities in tune with those things that can make our lives richer. And if they overlap, like Israel does, then we should pursue them all the more so.
On some level I always knew I got on the plane because of a deep-seeded sense of duty and obligation, but I didn't realize until much later that stopping there wasn't enough. Situations constantly change, as I learned in Gilo, and healthy risks that reinforce our responsibilities make our lives fuller, as I learned through Rabbi Gordis and Col. Ramon's words. While obligation got me to Israel, I needed to learn to make it enrich my life. I hope you can do the same.