I stood on the pool deck at a Jaffa hotel, breathing in the fresh, salty air from the sea. It was Tel Aviv's "golden hour" when the sky is lit up as if it were on fire. I glanced over to see new friends on this summer's 2018 Jewish Federations of North America National Young Leadership (NYL) Mission in awe of the beauty around them. I smiled, and then thought to myself: "This is going to get good."
Just two years ago, I, like them, had been a fresh-eyed participant knowing nothing about the work that was done through the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago. I remember calling my parents after visiting JUF's Partnership Together region in Kiryat Gat. They excitedly listened to my overly detailed (and borderline manic) enthusiastic summary of the day. My mom said to me, "You are going to come back changed."
And I did.
I treasured that experience: the friendships, the education, the spiritual growth, the re-connection to Israel and Judaism, but most importantly, the re-connection to myself. Now, it was my turn to offer this experience to others looking at it through the lens of a leader as the Chicago chair of the mission. All seven Chicago participants -- out of 70 from around North America -- had been to Israel before, but they were eager to return to see Israel in a different light as young leaders.
The itinerary was prodigious, but we managed to cram in even more than was planned. Between the geopolitical discussions, site visits, and cultural experiences, the only time my mind rested is when I was asleep-just a few hours a night.
With each conversation, we learned more about the complexities and challenges Israel faces every day: We discussed U.S.-Israel relations with Illinois native and former Israel Ambassador to the U.S. Dan Shapiro, spoke with young Israeli couples about marriage equality, learned about Israel/Syria border security, walked along the Seam Line of the West Bank, and heard from Yotam Dagan, a former Navy SEAL commander, psychologist, and hostage negotiator.
We learned firsthand how JUF has changed the lives of so many people. We put on our best farming gear and went apple picking at Ha'Tov V'Hameitiv Farm, which provides fresh produce at healthy meals to people in need. We played games with young children at Jewish Agency for Israel's Youth Futures, a mentoring initiative for at-risk children. Even with a language barrier, I learned that the "Floss" dance is now a universal language -- all it took was a little "Flossing" to earn a smile from a shy, withdrawn youth. And we were moved playing a game of wheelchair basketball, part of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee's Israel Unlimited/Friends for Healthy Living, an inclusion program for individuals with physical and cognitive disabilities.
As I sang the hymn Lecha Dodi on Shabbat, overlooking Jerusalem's Old City, I knew with certainty that this 2018 mission, undoubtedly carried just as much meaning as my first. I asked myself: "What is it about these missions that undoubtedly change me when I am here?" I looked around to my new, deeply-bonded friends, and got my answer.
My Jewish experience is synonymous with community. It's not about newness that makes the mission special; it's about togetherness. Together we learned. Together we gave back. Together we laughed. Together we experienced. Together, for good.
Elizabeth Kramer is a vice president on JUF's Young Leadership Division Board of Directors.