The author, with arms outstretched, hikes in the Holy Land with teens from NFTY-EIE High School in Israel.
One year ago, with my bags packed (two to be exact, weighing 50 pounds each), I boarded a plane that would take me somewhere incredible. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, never having been to the Holy Land before, but I knew that it was going to be special at NFTY-EIE High School in Israel. Now back in regular school, with regular people, in my regular life I reflect on the moment when I knew that my life was about to change forever.
None of us ever thought that we would be in the place where we are now: on a plane to Israel with 84 strangers whom we met only hours before at the gate. Some of us always knew we would leave home for adventures one day, and others never imagined that it would happen to us. When people asked “why?” we simply answered, “because we can,” not needing any other explanation.
We have been given an opportunity that not many 16- and 17-year-olds have. Some of us come from broken homes, families torn apart by divorce and death. Some of us are lucky enough to come from intact homes with enough wealth to go around. Some of us are the opposite, with money up to the top of our heads and the roofs of our huge houses. Some of us are alone, with no friends or family to watch us grow up.
This was our chance to escape, no matter where we came from. Perhaps we were hoping that the Holy Land would guide us through the rest of our lives because the rest of the world has let us down. Perhaps we needed adventure and a thrill that nothing else can give us. Perhaps we were running from hatred and violence to a place where Jewish teens can feel safe and secure. Perhaps it was a tradition that we went solemnly on this journey because our siblings and parents before us had gone as well. We were all here for some reason and it did not matter what it was. Perhaps this would be the experience that would change our lives.
Most of us were terrified. The exhilaration of spending four months in the Middle East with total strangers was not all positive. What if no one likes us? These were the thoughts running through our heads during the 12-hour plane ride when no one slept. Our minds were buzzing non-stop as we hopped from one seat to the next, creating friendships that might appear “unconventional” in the real world. One minute we were introducing ourselves and the next we were sitting on each other’s laps talking about our most embarrassing moments. Even as we opened up we stayed guarded.
Most of us are used to these types of interactions, though, coming from youth groups and sports teams. It was not unusual for us to open up in a short period of time. Most of us are ready for a change. Our high schools lacked the intimacy that we needed in our education. The halls filled with people we did not like and people who could not accept us for who we are no matter how hard we tried. Most of us are the kinds of people that you see and hear about, but wouldn’t want to talk to because of how “out there” we are.
We heard how people spoke about us, the negativity filling our hearts no matter how hard we tried to silence it. “What kind of person wants to spend four months in a war zone?” “No one likes them so that’s why they are leaving.” “I guess you don’t really care about your friends here.” These were the thoughts and phrases we heard. Whether it was said out loud or not, we could see it on their faces. That was the face we are not going to see on this plane. Because all of us know what it feels like to be hurt and broken. For most of us, this is our final hope.
For those 12 hours there was a constant vibe of adrenaline. Our hearts pumped as reality took place. Sitting in our seats we discussed what we were getting ourselves into. When we finally made it to Israel we knew that the hills would be huge, the streets narrow and the crowds packed. Everywhere you looked, you would see someone Jewish.
We would be immersed into a culture that was only learned about in social studies class. We would be one of the Israelis. Our hair would be long and curly, and our skin tan and clear. The Middle Eastern sun shining down on us day after day, we would be happy. The memories of walking down the street and having pennies thrown at the ground in front of us would be no more. The image of swastika-covered graffiti on the bathroom stalls would be erased from our minds. Sitting behind the closed door, secretly crying before heading to class would be our motivation. At home no one knew our pain. Separately we were all just outcast high school students, but together we were understood. (Photo: Isabel Calkins and friends overlook the Judean Hills.)
As the plane touched down on the ground in Tel Aviv, a new question formed in our minds: “What if we never want to leave?”