This story comes to us from BBYO, the leading pluralistic teen movement aspiring to involve more Jewish teens in more meaningful Jewish experiences. For 90 years, BBYO has provided identity enrichment and leadership development experiences for hundreds of thousands of Jewish teens.
Kyle Price is a rising junior at Rye Country Day School in Rye, NY and the Aleph Godol, or Aleph Zadik Aleph (AZA) President, of BBYO Westchester Region.
When someone asks me where I live, I immediately respond, “Scarsdale, New York.” One month ago, if someone were to ask me where my home was, the answer would have been the same as the answer to the previous question. Now, I hesitate when asked this question.
What does this person mean by “home?” Is “home” where my house is? If so, my home is Scarsdale, New York. But what if the person means to ask where I feel most comfortable and secure? If this is the case, my home is Israel.
Last week, I returned to New York from a three-week BBYO Summer Experience in Israel called International Leadership Seminar in Israel (ILSI). This marked my seventh trip to Israel. I already knew that I loved the land and connected to it deeply, so I didn’t expect a life-changing experience. Then again, I also didn’t expect a war to break out while I was there.
Over the course of the trip, I saw life proceed as usual despite the dozens of rockets being fired into Israel each day. To my surprise, though, no one seemed too panicked and nothing seemed too chaotic. There were several Israeli staff members on my trip, including one named Baruch who was called to fight in Gaza a few days before the trip ended, who – while his homeland was under siege – didn’t seem afraid. The composure of all the Israelis was admirable.
When my friends and family texted me to ask if I was safe, I assured them that I was the safest I’d ever been. I was surrounded by my best friends in my newly declared homeland. I was protected by the soldiers of the IDF, whom I respect immensely, and, of course, by the Iron Dome. Not only did I feel safe; I felt invincible. The strong Israelis rubbed off on me and, soon, I felt more assimilated into Israeli culture than ever before.
As someone who has followed and loved politics for many years, I came to Israel not wanting to learn more about the political situations and conflicts that the country faces, but instead about my spirituality and my connection to Judaism.
Since Israel was now my self-declared homeland and since I continually heard my friends and family refer to it as “holy,” I thought that at some point during the trip I’d realize that I not only love the Jewish people, but I also love Judaism and want to learn more about the religion. I expected this moment of realization to come while praying on the top of Masada, or while my eyes welled up with tears at the Kotel, or perhaps while talking to a bearded man named Avraham who made Kabbalistic art in Tzfat and said that everything was, “like, sooooo spiritual, you guys.”
But, my epiphany didn’t come at any of these places. Instead, it came during a conversation with my friend Jacob Herstein – another North American Jewish teen – while walking through the tunnels that run alongside the Western Wall.
Jacob and I met last year at Kallah, a BBYO Summer Experience focused on Judaic learning. I have always admired his knowledge of everything from the teachings of important rabbis to the history of the Israelites. As I asked him questions about the significance and history of the First and Second Temples, about which I knew little, and as he answered each of my questions like a wise sage, I realized that I could learn a lot from Judaism.
I could learn not just about the history of the Jews and the teachings of the Torah, but also about how to be a wiser, more spiritual individual who leads a life that makes other people want to be better – like Jacob, who made me want to be a better person.
On the last night of the trip, we had an incredible BBYO B’yachad event that brought together all of the teens from the various BBYO trips that were in Israel. We listened to Lynn Schusterman, founder and co-chair of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and Matt Grossman, BBYO’s CEO, bring our trip to a meaningful conclusion with inspiring and passionate speeches about how important it was to them to be in Israel at a time that, in spite of conflict, brought unity.
Afterwards, on the terrace of The Israel Museum overlooking Jerusalem, I said goodbye to Jacob and told him how much I appreciated his help on my journey to becoming a better person and a better Jew. I then promised myself that I would follow through with this aspiration. My connection to Jacob strengthened my connection to Judaism, which made my already-strong bond to Israel unbreakable. On each of my previous trips to Israel, I repeatedly fell in love with the people, the history and the country as a whole.
On this trip to Israel, though, I didn’t just fall in love again – I became a part of it all.
Two things made the trip life-changing for me: one was my newfound spirituality and strengthened religious connection to the land of Israel. The other, as backwards and confusing as it may seem, was the IDF, Hamas and the current situation in Israel. This made me appreciate every aspect of Israel, from Masada to the Dead Sea to the Kotel to the Negev, for I now realize the sacrifices that are made each day to keep the Jewish state and all of its people alive and well. It is for these reasons that my trip to Israel with BBYO made Israel my home.
The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or all program participants.