By Reba Auslander-Stevens
We used to do an activity at my Hashomer Hatzair summer camp in Canada, where we had to choose from one of four words that we most identified with: Jewish, Canadian/American, Zionist, Human Being. While our friends at other camps were water skiing and playing team sports, we were pondering this existential challenge. At the time, as I recall, most of us said we are first and foremost a Human Being. I don’t think one could go wrong with this choice as acting as such also encompassed a lot of the values of Judaism, such as Tikun Olam (repairing the world), doing mitzvot (good deeds), and treating others with compassion.
As the JWRP trip approached and Operation Protective Edge continued to ramp up, I once again found myself pondering this question. I spent most of my summers as a teenager in Israel and lived in Tel Aviv from ’90-’92, during the Gulf War, yet as life got busy in North America I returned only twice since; the last time being 14 years ago. So I found myself joining many others going on the July 2014 JWRP trip debating whether I should go or not. As a Human Being, how could I enjoy myself while people are losing their homes and dying? How could I dance and rejoice while soldiers are facing terrorists just a few miles away? What if Ben Gurion airport shuts down? How could I enjoy Tel Aviv before or after the JWRP trip if I’ll have to be running in and out of shelters? I found myself paralyzed with indecision.
With only one weekend left to decide, I joined the conference call with well over 150 JWRP women faced with the same dilemma, led by Lori Palatnik. As I listened to the barrage of questions, I found myself privately answering them with the exact same responses from Lori: “Think about how meaningful it will be when we visit an Army base. Imagine how grateful everyone you come into contact with will be for supporting Israel during this difficult time. If we believe there is any security issue, we will alter the agenda to keep you safe.”
As I listened it suddenly occurred to me, in this moment, I am first and foremost a Zionist, and I must go! It wasn’t only Israel under attack, but also the Jewish community around the world. Many people think Israel and Judaism are two entities, but the fact is that Israel defends itself, as the only democracy in the Middle East, to protect Jews everywhere. I realized I had to go and show my support, see old friends, visit with family, re-connect with the land, learn and grow, and advocate for peace.
Once I made my decision, my anxiety turned into excitement and – with the support of my family – there was no turning back. This was reinforced time and time again: the pride I felt taking a seat on the mostly empty El Al flight from Newark; when I arrived in Tel Aviv and my dormant, fluent Hebrew came flooding back; when I heard my first siren just a few hours after landing and could provide on-the-ground perspective to hundreds of friends and family via social media. Most significantly, from the moment our JWRP group boarded our buses, a bond was formed among all of us that we know will last forever.
The official JWRP trip was only one week long, but it encompassed the experience of a lifetime. A big part of me that was dormant due to the normal busy-ness of life was re-awakened, and won’t let me wait very long this time before going back to Eretz Yisrael.