I’ve been back from Israel for a week now, trying to get some perspective on what was a powerful journey.  Here are some of my thoughts, though the dust is far from being truly settled.

The 8th cohort of the Staff Israel Seminar began on October 21, 2013. Our first official group activity was --  no surprise -- dinner. We sat in a Galilean restaurant around long wooden tables loaded with crisp vegetable salads, platters of hummus and pita, and carafes of fresh fruit juices. It was balmy outside; the doors and windows were open, inviting the culinary curiosity of several feral felines. A spunky, stylishly coiffed and casually dressed woman stood before us, and said, in a charming British accent, “Hello, I’m Sara Sless of the JCCA and I just want to say, welcome home.”

Welcome home?  What was that supposed to mean?  Was it meant to evoke feelings of tribalism amongst those of us who were Jewish?  Was it an expression of institutional commiseration?  Jet lagged and bleary after 24 hours of travel, the thought that we were “home” may have seemed like a surreal suggestion.  

But 10 days later, after rafting and splashing and floating in its many different waters; having scuffed over its various layers of stone and sand and silt; taken in the realities of West and East Jerusalem, North and South Tel Aviv, the verdant Galilee and the arid Arad valley; after considering immigrant stories from Moses to Operation Moses; supping on hummus, m’jadrah, kebab, falafel and more hummus; sleeping under a Bedouin tent, riding camels, and offering our prayers, praises and petitions—after all that, Sara’s greeting made sense.

Engaging in conversations and witnessing many sides of Israel allowed each of us to delve into issues and dreams that resonated deeply with our own stories.  We took in the natural beauty, the geopolitical complexity, the social idealism and the historical drama, all of which include extraordinary triumphs and walloping failures.  It is indeed amazing to think that in only 10 days our diverse group could have formed the feeling that this dynamic, tragic and complicated land did, indeed, feel like home. But for many of us, that was exactly the case. 

Perhaps it is because Israel and America share so many qualities: they are both relatively young countries, each founded by immigrants who sought, and continue to seek, a brave new world.  A place where diversity is encoded in the very fabric of society, founded on vision and rooted in the gritty realities of survival and displacement.  The quest for democracy that underlies the lofty national projects of both Israel and the United States both challenges and inspires their citizens and residents on nearly every front.  Both countries' stories have been shaped by European pioneers who arrived to lay down biblical, political and economic roots in mythically familiar, but practically foreign lands, all the while sweeping aside the indigenous populations’ culture to instead introduce their own noble and shameful institutions. 

An Israeli flag waves from a boat on the Sea of Galilee. Photo / Laura Paull

But of all the similarities what struck me most was the simple desire on the part of the Israelis we met to be known and understood.  Through their unguarded willingness to talk about their lives we were made privy to Israel’s deepest dilemmas and thorniest problems.  They trusted us to hear them out with compassionate discernment, and out of that trust came a deep sense of amity. It was clear from the dialogues we had with our Israeli hosts that even a difficult conversation can bear fruit when approached with intelligence, honesty and respect. Disagreements abounded, but so did an ability to recognize that each coin really does have two sides. And no matter what side of that coin you are on, at the end of the day all anyone really wants is a place to call home.  I think we all came away from these encounters feeling like we had just visited a huge extended family.  And should we have the honor of welcoming any of our hosts to America, I hope we will greet them also with, “welcome home.”