Friday, October 6th, 2017, 1:14 PM (excerpt from journal)
Last Sunday, I had the privilege of going on tiyul (trip) with my favorite alma mater, Alexander Muss High School in Israel, or HSI, as participants in the program call it. I had been in correspondence for a week or so with my teacher from the program, Aubrey Isaacs- a kind, hysterical, Scottish orthodox man living in Israel and teaching American Jews about Israeli and Jewish history.
On my way from home to HSI, I looked out the bus window eagerly awaiting the familiar scenery which was bound to appear. Soon enough, I began to recognize the stores, laundromats, and parks, knowing that I had finally entered the familiar town of Hod Hasharon where HSI is located. But my feelings of relief, comfort, and excitement were soon overshadowed by those of nervousness and apprehension, stemming from one crucial but heartbreaking fact: I was no longer a participant on the program. When I arrived to campus, I would not be greeted by the faces of my friends from the program. I would not have to text my madrichim, Tomer and Michal, to check in for the night and let them know I made it safely back on campus. I would not head into the chadar ochel (dining hall) to fill my empty stomach with mediocre schnitzel and Israeli salad. Unfortunately, this time, I was coming back as an alumni. I was going on tiyul with a group of high schoolers, none of whom were my friends. But, I was up for the challenge, so I sent the nervous feelings away and walked through the familiar gates of AMHSI.
I arrived on campus and felt similarly to how I did the first few days on the program, with no idea who anyone was or where I was supposed to be. I asked frantically where Aubrey’s class was, if anyone had seen Aubrey, and most importantly, if the bus had already left without me. I grew more panicky when all of the students responded “I don’t know, sorry!” And then, at last, a familiar face was spotted: Aubrey’s old assistant, Benji, who sat in on all of my classes when I was a student and came on all of our tiyulim. I was thrilled that he remembered me, and we quickly caught up before I continued my search for Aubrey. After a few more “No’s” and “I don’t know’s” from students (most didn’t even know who Aubrey was as they just had arrived on campus a few weeks before), I stood awkwardly outside of the chadar ochel, until finally I spotted Aubrey’s signature red hair, sneakers, and tzitzit. After a sigh of relief, I ran over and embraced him, and we began our day.
I climbed aboard the bus, choosing a seat next to one of the madrichim, Almog, who is photobombing the above photo. Aubrey introduced me to the group as “Sofia, my old student” over the crackly bus microphone, and I sunk into my seat as I heard awkward applause and cheers. We spent the day learning and having discussions at Beit Shearim and Tzippori, where some guy is buried and some important stuff happened… Let me pause and say that I am not an auditory learner. Pretty much anything I hear goes in one ear and out the other, whether it be a class lecture or a museum tour. This is the reason I am actually incapable of listening to podcasts and gave up after trying an episode of Guys We F***** which all of my friends had been raving about. So, to be honest, I can’t really tell you much of what I learned that day about the Sanhedrin or Rabbi Yehuda haNasi. Most of the day I was spacing out, reminiscing on my times at HSI or looking at the beautiful sights.
You might think that because I sat in on a day-long lecture and am the worst auditory processor EVER that I was bored. Don’t get me wrong. Though I was spacing out most of the time, I still had the BEST day – one of the best days I’ve had since I’ve been here. When I got super engaged in a conversation with Aubrey about my Jewish experience in Marin, was in awe looking at the views, or spaced out while listening to Aubrey speak passionately about the oral Torah, I felt like I was back on HSI again. Even though my friends from the program weren’t there, I loved hiking and walking with the students, befriending kids from Short Hills, New Jersey where I grew up, or Calabasas, California. When I really let everything go, closed my eyes, listened to the sounds of the birds, and felt the breeze, I felt like I was back. And it was the best feeling.
I don’t think I could comprehend how much Muss changed my life until I went back as an alumni. When I was on the program, I was homesick, stressed about tests, having fun with friends, or planning where to go to dinner to avoid eating the not-so-good chadar ochel food. I was so caught up with the day-to-day that I could never see the big picture of how incredible this experience was and how it would dramatically shift the course of my life. Even when I came home, I quickly fell back into routine that I couldn’t process it all. But when I stepped foot on campus again, it triggered a release of all of the realizations and appreciations that had been buried over the past 2.5 years. Emotions and memories flooded my mind. Only then, when everything came full circle and I had real closure with the program, could I see how much I have truly grown and changed…
First of all, my HSI friends have proven to be lifelong ones. These friends have continued to impact my life even though 2.5 years have passed since we were physically together. The fact that my friend group, “Yalla,” still talks in our group chat, that I am planning to visit Dani in college, or that I worked this past summer with Jonah and Rachel, are all testaments to the strength and endurance of these friendships.
HSI also inspired a real, personal, deep love for Judaism and for Israel that I never had before. Prior to HSI, what I knew about my Jewish and Zionist identities were both handed to me by my parents. But HSI was the first time I could really discover my relationship to Israel and to my religion on my own. With all of our fascinating tiyulim and Aubrey constantly pushing us to think about our identities, I was forced to always question what I knew more than I ever had in my life. Sure, I even cried after one class because I felt as if I didn’t know who I was as a Jew anymore. Why did I stay home on Friday nights to observe Shabbat, yet I went out on Saturdays instead of going to shul? Why did I have separate meat and milk dishes at home, yet ate cheeseburgers when I went out to eat? Was my entire Jewish identity just created and force-fed to be by my parents and my Jewish day school? Yes, these were all terrifying questions I had never before had to face. The most terrifying, yet also most exciting question of all was… What if the way I grew up practicing Judaism wasn’t the only option? There was an entire world of Jewish and Zionist possibilities, and now I was given the chance to redefine these identities in a way that was completely my own. This uncertainty and urgency to reconnect to Judaism + Israel after being thrown a curveball led me to where and who I am today. Though I had never questioned my Judaism or love for Israel before HSI, I now embrace that tension with open arms. This tension is what has allowed my Judaism + Zionism to be so fluid, so open to growth and change. I don’t plan to be completely “done” and satisfied with either identity any time soon, or ever for that matter, because this state of confusion, this threshold between craving more and needing less, gives me reason and motivation to continue discovering. This tension led me to apply to be a leader of Jewish Student Organization at my school. It led me to CHOOSE to stay home on Friday nights rather than being forced to by my parents. It led me to apply to Diller, to go to Poland, to work at a conservative summer camp, and to start my gap year in Israel. HSI was the first time I ever questioned my relationship with Judaism + Israel, and since then, my Jewish/Zionist journey has been infinitely more confusing, frustrating, fun, unique, diverse, and ultimately, meaningful. I owe this change, this constant hunger for learning and discovery, to HSI, which has allowed my life has been inexplicably bettered and enriched.
HSI was also the first time I had ever been truly on my own and away from home for a long period of time. I had gone to Paris but it was only for 2 weeks, and with my grandma. HSI was the newest and scariest thing I ever could have chosen to do (though I didn’t really choose to. My parents forced me). I was going away for 6 weeks with no close friends, to a far, far away country I hadn’t been to in many years. When I got there, it was HARD and there were many times in the first few weeks that I thought to myself, “What am I doing here?!” and desperately wanted to go home. I was sad, homesick, exhausted, and lonely. But eventually, I settled into a routine. I started to learn how to cope with my anxiety, the do’s and don’ts (i.e. DON’T go to the loud and overwhelming chadar ochel for dinner, DO journal or take a shower), how to open up to people, and how to make the most of a situation even if I was homesick. Obviously, HSI didn’t make my homesickness or anxiety go away, but it did do something that changed my life forever. It gave me the ability to step off the plane at SFO after 6 weeks in a foreign country and confidently say, “I just did that. And I can do it again.”
Never before had I believed that I was capable of going away for so long and leaving with a huge smile on my face. HSI was the first trip away from home, and the hardest, and afterward, some trips were easier while others were just as hard. But it wasn’t about things getting easier. What mattered was that from then on, I wanted to do more travel away from home, even if it was hard and scary. My family no longer had to force me, because the Band-Aid had already been ripped off. After HSI I began seeking opportunities to go away and have more lifechanging experiences it. I even wanted to go to college in another state, and go away for one entire year to travel. I used to fear that I’d never have the strength or desire to leave home, but after HSI I actively wanted to leave, both excited to have fun and also prepared to handle my anxiety. This was probably the most important realization of my whole life. My anxiety no longer held me back but spurred me forward. HSI was the first step in defining my relationship to my anxiety as something I could live with and ultimately be happy despite, rather than something to live in fear of. HSI showed me that I can travel for long periods of time and actually have a good time, a previously foreign concept to me after years of hating summer camp and sleepovers.
So, yeah. HSI has changed my life and who I am in so many ways. But I could not comprehend just how much I had grown socially, Jewishly, academically, and emotionally until I stepped foot on campus a few years later. But now, I can confidently say that I would not be who I am today, or literally where I am today as I sit writing this on the beach in Herzliya, if it weren’t for HSI. And for that I am incredibly grateful and blessed. “Thank you” doesn’t even begin to cover it. But my fingers are tired of typing and my mind is tired of so much introspection, and I want to go swim in the beautiful ocean. So for now, all I can say is thanks times 10000000. Hod is always home, and of that I am sure.