As the bus rumbles down the mountain, twisting and turning towards Jerusalem, I listen to the tour guide as he unfolds the story of how my nation, my people reclaimed our land. Deep emotions bubble up from within, from a place I cannot name. Soulful, gentle music plays as we continue through the tunnel that brings us to the top of Jerusalem. The soft voice of Naomi Shemer singing “Jerusalem of Gold” describes and depicts a land rich with soul, sweat, and love.
We stop at the top of Mount Scopus, and I nonchalantly descend the bus stairs and take the few steps that lead to the overview of this grand city. As I approach, I hesitantly allow my eyes to scan the place. I am cautious and guarded as I raise my eyelids and let the magnitude of it all to sink in. Intense emotion immediately explodes and overtakes my body, heart and soul, bursting through the gates and barriers I’ve put up. I allow my feelings to flow through every part of my being, enveloping me in a warm hug. I spread my arms, wishing to embrace the land, capturing it all, redeeming myself.
I stop holding back and open my mouth: a scream rushes out of me, ‘I am home!’ The tears then follow, and flow, as I reclaim my Judaism, my heritage, my faith. Without realizing what I have been missing, I am now aware of what it means to belong and have a home. This is the place my ancestors lived, the streets they have walked, the air they have breathed. Throughout the years, my people have toiled and labored this land, imbuing it with love, giving me a place to call home. This is the place where I belong, without judgment or doubt, here is where I can begin again and live in full.
Years ago, I visited Israel for the first time hoping to fall in love with the land that Jews from across the globe connect to and call home. I was yearning to find a place where I belong. I arrived with hopes of developing a kinship to the land that is rich with my history, people, and religion. My hopes were quickly doused, as I did not feel connected to God or Judaism in this land that is supposed to reflect that. Looking back, I now realize that the land of Israel was a projection of how I was experiencing Judaism at that time.
I felt oppressed in this place, needing to be on my best behavior and refrain from engaging in materialistic desires because of the holiness I didn’t feel but was told was there. Israel became a place where I cannot be me, made for holy people only. I didn’t want to be the person it demanded me to be and silently vowed to never visit it again. It was with a sense of relief, and some sadness, that I headed back home. When asked about my first experience in Israel, I gave the response they desired, shamefully hiding my true feelings. When people discussed Israel, I shrugged my shoulders and tuned out, not understanding or relating to the love, desire and passion that filled them as they spoke.
As the years went on, my relationship with God and Judaism derailed, and I found myself leaving the religious life I was raised in. When I joined Project Makom two and a half years ago, I began my journey of rediscovering and relearning from the bottom up. I learned about a loving, caring God I didn’t know existed. I found beauty and joy in Judaism as I began to understand and appreciate the magnitude of my people and where we come from. I developed a desire and interest in being Jewish and embracing the meaning of it. I started seeing Judaism as a privilege as opposed to an oppression, a gift and not a burden. Surprisingly, I found myself listening to others talk about Israel, longing to find the love and belonging they describe. I yearned to revisit the place I had written off in the past, hoping to see it in a new light and find home. Through Project Makom, I was connected to Manhattan Jewish Experience, the organizers of this Israel trip. Through Project Makom, I felt ready to try one more time.
Standing at Mount Scopus now, I take a deep breath in, inhaling the love, beauty and joy encapsulating this moment. I remember the first time I was here, the disappointment and detachment I felt back then. I reflect on the years of suffering I went through as I toiled and searched for the true meaning in my life as a Jew. I am filled with tremendous gratitude and immense feeling of coming full circle. I have been gone for so long, and today I came back. Today I have returned. I came home to a place where I belong. To a place I’m meant to be. I am here; totally whole-heartedly and wholesome, physically mentally and emotionally, body and soul. I thought I’d never come back. I thought there was no place for me here. I thought God’s not there. I had so many thoughts and yet, I came back, I came home!
To help countless other Jews rediscover the love and positivity in Jewish learning and observance, please support Project Makom during its annual campaign. Whatever you can give is so appreciated!