By Ellie Plisko, Fall 2018 student
This D’var Torah was delivered at her synagogue’s Israel Family Shabbat
Three years ago, if you had asked me what my life would look like now, my response would have been nowhere close to what my reality is. Even if you asked me four months ago, I couldn’t have even imagined where things would be right now. At the end of August 2018 I began the first chapter in the journey of a lifetime. I dropped my life here in Maryland, got onto a plane in New York with 27 strangers, and headed to Israel for 4 months. I chose to do the fall semester of my Junior year as a part of the Reform Movement’s URJ Heller High School in Israel. I had never been to Israel and whenever I heard people talk about it, I always had this feeling of jealousy in the back of my head. It was portrayed to me as this beautiful and perfect country that welcomed people like me –Jews. Well, I was happy to learn that half of that was true. Of course, the country isn’t perfect because that would be ridiculous, but it was insanely beautiful, for sure.
When I came back home at the end of December, I hadn’t realized it, but the way I saw the world was so different. To me, Judaism used to just be a religion that I was a part of. It was that simple. Judaism was Sunday school, Shabbat, summer camp, and NFTY. It was the prayers I would recite for different holidays and it was the thing that made me different from others and often times it was the thing that made me weird. But then, for 4 months I got to immerse myself in a culture centered around this thing that made me weird and live in a Jewish place. I took a Jewish history class that began with Adam and Eve and we learned all the way up until present day. It was crazy to me that I have been living a Jewish life since I was born, but there was so much that I didn’t know. One of the main themes my teacher, Evan, tried to help us understand was that being Jewish is more than a religion. Being Jewish is being part of a people, being Jewish is the values we teach and learn, being Jewish is helping others, being Jewish is learning, and being Jewish is being a part of the strongest community I have ever experienced.
Throughout my time in Israel I learned so much – not just about Judaism, but also about friendship, honesty, love, compassion, teamwork and most importantly, myself. After being there for 3 weeks, we embarked on Yam l’Yam, which translates to “sea to sea.” It was a hike from the Kinneret to the Mediterranean Sea. We slept outside under the stars, with no tents or showers for a week. I can assure you I would never do that by choice. But for some reason it was one of the best weeks of my life. Every morning we woke up early and it would be freezing cold. We would pack up our backpacks and start hiking for the day. A few hours later we would stop for lunch and divide into groups to cook our own food in the middle of the woods. Then, we would hike some more, and in the late afternoon we would stop for a few hours. We would go swimming or sit in hammocks and relax for a little bit. By the end of the day everyone would be sweaty and tired, so we would set up at our campsite and all hang out. We had bonfires, and sang songs, told stories, and just spent quality time together. My phone was dead, and I was 7,000 miles away from home, completely off the grid with my best friends. It was amazing. We all became so much closer and I will never forget the very last day. My best friend Cecelia and I got to the Mediterranean Sea and couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. We put on our bathing suits and ran to the water as fast as we could. We spent the rest of the day at the beach playing around and just being in the moment and It was so refreshing after the long week we had.
The feeling of running into the water was indescribable and that was one of the first moments that I realized how lucky I was to be spending this time in Israel. It was so weird to me that I was in a place where my Judaism was everywhere, and I didn’t have to look for it. I was surrounded by it every day. Most people I talk to about Israel are people at my secular high school and they don’t understand it the way other Jewish people do. It makes sense, but at first, I was frustrated that they didn’t get it. But in the past few weeks I’ve become more okay with it.
When I first got home, I was really sad, and I missed Israel with everything I had. Don’t get me wrong, I still miss it, a lot, but what I have realized in the last few weeks is that I had the adventure of a lifetime. I did something that so many people will never do and that makes me feel beyond lucky. I realized that it doesn’t matter if people don’t realize the impact my semester had on me because what’s important is that I know how much of an impact it had on me. My time in Israel is something that I could talk about forever and something that will live in my heart. I am so grateful for everything I learned, everyone I met, everything I accomplished, and all of the ways I grew on this endeavor.