by Rachel Bieler
B’ruchim Haba'im L'Yisrael! - Welcome to Israel! These are the wonderful words that greet as you enter the main plaza in Ben Gurion Airport. I can't think of three better words.
I have been to Israel and have read this sign three times - the first being 23 years ago for my brother's Bar Mitzvah. Then two years ago, I had the great privilege to spend two weeks studying at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. At the end of our time in Israel I vividly remember standing in Ben Gurion Airport waiting for our return flight home, weeping (although some might say it was more like sobbing) because I did not want to leave, I said, "it will not be another 21 years before I return."
And it wasn't. Last year, I joined a fabulous group of people on Makom's first trip to Israel. And what a beautiful trip it was!
These two most recent trips were very very different, and yet each had an incredible impact on me, both as a Jewish educator and as a person. The trip two years ago was for concentrated, intensive learning; I was part of a cohort of educators from North America learning how to approach the teaching of the Holocaust in an age-appropriate way and in a time when survivors, sadly, will no longer be with us. Not only that, I was making this trip during a time of war. In fact, a dear friend questioned my decision to go at this time.
The thing is...it wasn't just the seminar at Yad Vashem that had such an impact on me; it would be SO incredibly easy to make that claim. It was so many other random moments:
- from sitting down at Machane Yehuda (the shuk in Jerusalem) shortly before Shabbat and hearing Shalom Aleichem being played,
- to being welcomed for my first Shabbat in Israel to celebrate with friends,
- to being able to join the Women of the Wall at the Kotel for Rosh Chodesh services,
- to accidentally happening upon an induction ceremony for new soldiers and proudly singing Hatikvah with them at the Southern Wall,
- to attending the funeral, Max Steinberg z"l, a young American serving in the Israeli Army
Every single one of these moments - and countless others - left an indelible mark.
Then there was the wonderful trip this past February with Makom NY. A very different experience; this was a chance to tour Israel. While I revisited some places I had been less than two years prior, most things I was experiencing for the first time, and for some, it felt like the first time because it is hard to remember things from 23 years ago! I also had the opportunity to see some of these things through the eyes of the children on the trip. Learning through their excitement...eye opening. I, myself, was like a kid in a candy store; I couldn't get enough of this beautiful land!
I also quickly felt a warm and comforting sense of community with the wonderful people on this trip - a sense of family.
While a very different trip, this experience was also filled with many influential moments:
- from our visit to Caesaria where I quietly sang Eli Eli, a beautiful poem by Hannah Senesch
- to a nighttime walk with friends on the beach in Tel Aviv,
- to a mifgash (special encounter) with soldiers at the Lebanese border,
- to a jeep ride through the Golan Heights,
- to the gorgeous B'nai Mitzvah ceremony of Sam and Lauren at the Southern Wall.
So in this month of Elul as I reflect on the past year and on myself, I acknowledge the influence these Israel experiences have had on me. Am I the best educator I can be? No, I always try to learn ways to be better. But I do know these experiences have changed the way I approach teaching and have made me a far better educator. I would dare to say they also made me a better person, a better Jew.
And I will say this...I am forever grateful to have had these wonderful influences in my life.