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Welcomed like family

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I went on Birthright the summer of 2013 because I didn’t get the advertising internship I applied for. What I could never have predicted was bawling tears of joy in the middle of the mikvah (ritual bath) in Safed, climbing Masada with a sprained ankle, or announcing I wanted to live in Israel the third day of my trip. What started out as a bet with my staff member turned into me picking up my life and spending five of the most transformative months in Tel Aviv.

As a hopeless romantic at heart, I started my journey to Israel with a boy. We were longtime friends who never gave a relationship a chance. When I was 21, I met a nice Jewish boy in Reno, Nev. That summer he went on Birthright and came back saying he decided to join the Israel Defense Forces and was moving to Israel in two months. I couldn’t understand how one 10-day trip could inspire someone to make such a huge decision. That is until I went myself.

Growing up in the music and theater community, I always considered myself a creative and intuitive person. So it came as no surprise that the mystical city of Safed communicated with my soul. I knew in that moment that my time in Israel was not close to being done. Right when I got back to Reno, I called the IDF boy I had still kept in touch with for three years. He was visiting Reno and after a few dates we decided to give the relationship a shot—in Israel!

I heard about Masa Israel while on the Birthright trip and after speaking with an advisor over the phone, I decided to take a five month internship in Tel Aviv. I could not wait to start my journey despite my family being nervous about my upcoming adventure. “Don’t do this for a boy,” my family would say but I was convinced there were so many driving forces for me to go.

Two months before my journey, the relationship ended and I had to muster the courage to go across the world completely on my own. Thus began the experience that made me who I am today.

When I arrived in Israel I was greeted by a truly international welcome. Every day made me appreciate what I had and nothing touched my heart like working with the incredible team associated with the documentary film Sounds of Torture. This inspiring film focused on Eritrean asylum seekers who make their way through the Sinai desert only to get kidnapped at the Egyptian Israeli border. They are put into torture camps where they are physically beaten while calling come requesting large sums of money for their release. Just interacting with these brave souls made all my petty issues seem so insignificant. All they wanted was the simple thing I took for granted every day—freedom. Freedom to live, work, and be safe.

Israel started as a step in my relationship. Even though I ended up going alone, I never felt lonely. When I didn’t have a place to stay, I was welcomed into a stranger’s home like family. When I struggled to find a coffee shop, a man personally walked me there walking a mile out of his way. And when a man trying to start a new life was scared for his wife’s health, a community got together to provide her with medicine and a safe place to heal. What I realized was it gave Jewish people a true look into what it means to belong to a Jewish community. I will be forever grateful to Birthright, Masa Israel, and the IDF boy for changing my life.

Masa Israel Journey is the umbrella for 5-12 month programs including gap year, study abroad, and post college internships and volunteer placements. The programs are specifically designed to give each individual an immersive experience complete with interactions in the local communities, intensive Hebrew immersion ulpan, and trips all over the country. If you know anyone interested in participating on a Masa Israel program or want to find out more information go to www.masaisrael.org or email Tovah Goodman, the Chicago representative at tovahgoodman@juf.org.

Tovah Goodman is Engagement Associate for Israel Initiatives for the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

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