Rachel Weinstock, originally from Houston, TX, made Aliyah and joined the I.D.F after participating on Year Course in 2010. She is now beginning her first year at Tel Aviv University.
The word “Israel” has a unique meaning to every Jew. For me, my relationship with Israel has shaped who I am as an American-Israeli woman, and has aided me in forming my identity as a Zionist. Before I came on Year Course in 2010, I had always felt a connection to Israel and thought I understood its purpose as the Jewish homeland. But, that merely meant that I saw it as a place that Jews could live safely, especially Jews who had nowhere else to turn to.
Today, Israel represents so much more than religious acceptance and pluralism. Although in the United States I always struggled with identifying with Jewish life, I’ve become very connected to my Jewish roots here. In Israel, my new home, Judaism nourishes me to its fullest capacity. It offers me a feeling of belonging and purpose. This feeling becomes apparent in the little things I observe, and the small, insignificant interactions I have. As I walk down the street past Hebrew storefronts, and am greeted with a warm “shalom” from my neighbors, I am reminded of how welcomed I am here. It is a place where my friends have become my family, and even their families treat me like one of their own. It is a place where I do not have to hide being Jewish, and can express my identity in its entirety.
After serving as a medic in the I.D.F. after Year Course, it has become clear that my relationship to this country has inevitably changed. Israel is no longer a place I would turn to if I had nowhere else to go, but the only place I would now want to live.
After Year Course, I pictured my life going in two potential directions. The first was to go back to the United States and start college, which was expected of me as a 19-year-old American. I knew that if I chose that path, however, I would have felt as if part of me were missing. I felt as though going back to America would force me to stifle the Zionist Jew that had become such a big part of my identity. If I stayed in Israel, however, I would be taking my life into my own hands. I would be living my own life, not the one that had been set out for me by American societal standards. Here in Israel, I knew I would gain a unique, meaningful experience that would otherwise be lost.
Before living here, I didn’t truly understand that Israel’s existence was constantly being threatened. I learned during my year on Year Course that Israel’s enemies are not only trying to destroy the Jewish state, but the Jewish people. Joining the army was my way of preventing that from happening. Of course I was afraid of taking this leap of faith, but that was not important. I knew what I had to do.
I do not look at Israel as a utopia, and I do realize its challenges, especially after serving as a medic in the army. However, these challenges only drive me more to contribute to Israeli society. I never felt needed as a citizen of America, but I know that I am needed here. The land needs me, the army needed me, and the people need me to help this country flourish.
I realize that my decision to make Aliyah has its setbacks. It has been and will continue to be very challenging, and I am aware of the sacrifices I have made in order to make my life here. However, I have spent so much time reflecting on my Israeli life, and I truly believe that the sacrifices are outweighed by the rewards. I have a dream that I can build something positive, create a new life for myself, and help build and protect a country that I love. I am 22 years old, just got out of the army, and just started university here in Israel. I am constantly in search of answers to my thousands of questions in a new environment, and I am confident I will find them here.
Kislev is a month of miracles. Hannukah, the festival of lights, has always brought me hope in a time that would otherwise be darker and colder. I am about to celebrate my fourth Hannukah in Israel, my first as a university student, and the first anniversary of my release from the army. When I was 18 and on Year Course, I never thought I was capable of being so brave to have built my life here. I think it is important, especially in the face of conflict, for us to take this time to look towards the light and not allow ourselves to be swallowed by darkness and fear. We need to remember that hope comes from within, and as long as we preserve it, it is there.