Journey to Israel
I am one of about 5.7 million Jews that live in the United States. As a Jew, making the trip to Israel is always something high on the bucket list. And as a convert to Judaism I have always felt pressure that I should have a strong connection to the state of Israel. Over a year ago my father-in-law suggested we go to Israel as a family for his 70th birthday. He may have said it as a wish he didn’t think would actually come true. A few weeks later my husband and I told him the dates we were available and the planning began.
My journey to Judaism started when I entered Junior High. I grew up in a Christian home. We attended church. My mom conducted the church choir. I had a confirmation. I honestly can’t remember much of anything from my time with the church. My mom lost her interest in religion right around the time of my confirmation and from then on we never attended any church. I consider my mom as spiritual. You know, the “nature is my church” type-of-person. My dad considers himself Christian even though he doesn’t attend any church. My brother is not at all religious and is probably the reason my mom started questioning organized religion. He married a Russian Jew who doesn’t practice any religious customs. And my sister loves a good church hymn.
Most would say I always had a thing for Jewish guys, so when I met my husband in college and found out he was latin and Jewish I knew I would probably end up marrying him (leave it to me to find the only Guatemalan Jew in Chicago!) I was always more curious about Judaism than Christianity. Always had a pull towards it. I would later be told by the rabbi that converted me that Converts’ souls have always been jewish and they just found their way back home.
I’d already been practicing Judaism for about 7 years when I decided to convert because it was important to me to have a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony. Being a convert to Judaism is an interesting way to be Jewish. I don’t have the typical ‘look’ of a Jew so I find people are usually confused when they find out I’m Jewish or when I mention that I converted they say, “oh, okay that makes sense.” Let that sink in for a minute. I am constantly confronted by the fact that I’m not ‘really Jewish’ and knowing that seems to put people’s’ minds at ease. When I see people looking at me with confusion at the statement that i’m Jewish, I find myself offering up that I converted -- a habit I am trying to stop. Converting shouldn’t make me any less Jewish, but I still find that many people think I’m not the real deal. And, to clarify, the perception that I’m not “fully Jewish” has never come from a Jewish person, but rather a Christian or non-religious person. The Jewish community that my husband and I have been a part of has always made me feel welcome and, if anything, are more confused at times by the fact that my husband is Guatemalan.
As my trip to Israel approached, I honestly didn’t really know what to expect. Would I have some intense spiritual connection? Would it feel like coming home? Would I return more connected to my religion? To my spirituality? And what does it mean if I don’t feel those things? Landing in Tel Aviv and seeing the Israeli flag all around let me tell you, it was a special moment. Maybe it was sleep deprivation, but I did have a moment of deep spiritual connection to a place I had never been.
To me, Tel Aviv looks like Berlin and Miami had a baby.
We spent three days exploring Tel Aviv and nearby areas. We explored Jaffa, Haifa, Neighborhoods and markets. I loved Tel Aviv and everything that came with it: the art, the blend of cultures and religions. Everyone was friendly and the differences between people didn’t really seem to matter.
After spending the first half of our trip in the bustling, modern city of Tel Aviv, we packed up and moved to Jerusalem. The day we arrived to Jerusalem, we visited the Israeli museum where I looked at Israeli fashion and art as a wonderful reprieve from the history and heaviness that I knew would follow at Yad Vashem. I’d been to the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. before and I knew for the most part what to expect and how emotionally draining it can be. As I’m sure you can imagine, the museum is horrific and moving. As you exit the exhibit you see a beautiful view and breathe in the fresh air that helps you come back into your body slowly.
I loved Tel Aviv so much that I expected to feel even more connected to Jerusalem. I mean it’s the religious center, the place I’ve been told I should have strong ties to, right? I quickly learned my expectations of what Jerusalem would offer me were unrealistic. The city was filled with bus-loads of tourists from all over the world, walking the city with guides waving large umbrellas and many ultra religious Jews. My husband and I are definitely not Orthodox Jews. Orthodox Judaism is so different from the Reform Judaism I practice and my worldview, that I have a hard time even understanding a lot of what they do -- women on a separate level of the synagogue, bodies covered, etc. It goes against so many things that drew me to Judaism in the first place, as well as my views on equality and inclusiveness. The experience in Jerusalem left me feeling confused and challenged to find a strong connection.
When we left for Masada and the Dead Sea I was feeling I hadn’t had the strong religious moment I had hoped for. But quickly left my worries behind as we enjoyed Masada’s stunning views, floated in the Dead Sea, and swam in pools and freshwater waterfalls at an oasis. Yep, it was as amazing as it sounds.
The night we drove back to Jerusalem, we were invited to Shabbat dinner to the home of the Rabbi who did my husband’s Bar Mitzvah. In 2001, his family moved from Guatemala to Israel. Standing in their home, saying the kaddish and watching him pray over his children, I had the moment I had been waiting for. It wasn’t in the history of the country. It wasn’t in seeing or touching the Western Wall or bathing in the Dead Sea. It was in seeing that after all of the conflict, this was what it was for; to be surrounded by Jews who were free to practice the way they wanted, knowing that any day it could all be taken away, and yet not letting it break them or their faith.
The next morning we walked to the Western Wall along with all the others who were praying on Shabbat. As I touched the wall to send my thanks and gratitude for the amazing trip I asked for one thing. I asked for peace. I asked for inner peace. I asked for peace for Israel. And I asked for Peace for us all.