On the third day of my semester in Israel, my Jewish history teacher posed a seemingly simple question: “What does it mean to be part of the Jewish people?” Many students, including myself, responded by saying that it meant to have a Jewish parent and participate in Jewish customs.
Spending time and studying in Israel helped me answer this question in a far more complete and thoughtful way.
Studying Jewish history heightened my appreciation for the Jewish people. To see and learn about how the Jewish people reacted to seemingly never-ending atrocities in the past pushes me to act in a more moral and thoughtful way today.
If the zealots at Masada proudly kept their Jewish identity, despite the threat of death by the Romans, then I too can be proud of my Judaism, despite the threat of modern anti-Semitism. If the Jews stood united during the Bar Kokhba revolt, despite the obstacles of fear put in place by Roman Emperor Hadrian, then Jews can stand united today, despite the obstacle of different customs and interpretations. If the Jews kept the hope of a Jewish future through the Holocaust, then so can we as we hear the news of a terrorist attack in Israel.
The theme of pride in Judaism, unity in the Jewish people and hope in a Jewish future are seen countless times in our history. My commitment to these three themes is how I am a part of the Jewish people; I am not part of the Jewish people because of a blind acceptance of Jewish holidays and beliefs, as I explained during my first week of being in Israel. Studying Jewish history and being surrounded by others who also have an awareness of Jewish history fortifies my commitment to these three themes.
I did not learn this just in a classroom. Instead, I learned these incredible lessons with a week in an Israeli-army simulation, a week in Poland studying the Holocaust, a five-day trip hiking from one side of Israel to the other, countless day trips around Israel, and a teacher who encouraged conversation and questioning.
During Passover in Israel, I felt the unity of the Jewish people as we all got rid of hametz while remembering the Exodus from Egypt. During Israel Independence Day, I felt the pride of the Jewish people as I saw countless Magen Davids waving in the streets. While singing “Hatikvah,” I felt the country hoping for a better future.
Being in Israel made me realize that pride in Judaism, unity of the Jewish people and hope in a Jewish future are not merely things I learned about in history class. Rather, they are things that I was able to witness in the modern State of Israel. Living and studying in Israel helped me connect and compare the past to the present, and it helped me prepare for my role as part of the Jewish future.
Rebecca Ezersky, 16, lives in Burlingame and is a member of Peninsula Temple Sholom. A rising senior at Burlingame High School, she goes to URJ Camp Newman and is active in the Reform movement’s NFTY Central West Region. This spring she took part in NFTY-EIE High School in Israel, an accredited program for Jewish students in grades 10-12 sponsored by the Union for Reform Judaism.