"Mom? Dad? Remember how you wanted me to love Israel and it was really important to you that I go there? Well, now that I'm here, I do love Israel. In fact, I'm not coming home. I'm staying here."
That's what I told my parents at the ripe age of 16 halfway through my summer youth trip to Israel. And though not every Jewish youth has such an extreme response to their first experience in the Jewish homeland, we all become impassioned in some way. Some of us come back wanting to learn Hebrew. Some want to learn more about Jewish history. Some people are compelled to explore their Judaism more seriously, and others just feel a stronger sense of Jewish identity. This phenomenon is so profound that millions of dollars have been put into getting Jewish youth to encounter Israel.
There's something special that happens to the Jewish soul when it comes in contact with Israel. Yes, the falafel on Ben Yehuda is phenomenal, and the shawarma is shwooper shwrumptious, but is that all that's happening? We're reuniting with our ancient genetic Mideast taste buds? There's gotta be something more.
To understand it, we have to go back to the first Birthright Israel trip ever, which actually took place over 3,500 years ago. There were no applications available online at the time, only a prophetic message sent via Divine Cloud (great app) to the one applicant who put his name in the Divine auction to win a trip to Canaan Land. The one applicant was none other than our great-great-grandfather, Abraham. The acceptance letter read: "Go away from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father's house…" That's a lot of places to leave! Why so many?
There are three things that naturally provide a person with a sense of who they are. Family is the most basic. Whether as a result or reaction to our family, it is a major player in making us who we are. The next level of influence comes from our friends, especially the people we grew up with. We've been through it all together, and we impact each other through our interactions. The level beyond that is the community. When we are in a foreign country and we find someone from the same country, state or city that we're from, there's a feeling of association, of closeness. We may never have met before, but the fact you are also from Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Florida or Minneapolis connects us and we share a commonality.
The director of the first Birthright trip (i.e. the Almighty) told Abraham to leave all three of these impressions before coming to Israel. Why? He was going to discover something precious in Israel. No, not the beaches of Netanya (though they are beautiful) -- he was going to discover himself. The divine words saying to "go" in the Hebrew are, "Lech lecha," which literally translates to, "Go … to you."
There's a "you" that will only be found in Israel. Until you get there, you will not fully be "you." And in order to truly see and become the "you" that you can be, you have to rid yourself of any preconditioned notions of who you are. Drop all those external impressions of yourself; come to a new reality of your core as a Jew in your homeland and experience the true "you."
When young Jews go to Israel, they find a new self-definition. When they're open to the experience, they can find out just how beautiful and precious their heritage truly is. I know that I did. We see ourselves and our Judaism in a new light. It's a homecoming. Going to Israel is not just coming to our homeland and people, but also coming to the home within ourselves.