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December 30, 2020 6:00 am

How a Trip to Israel Changed My Life and Helped Me Find My Purpose

avatar by Annmarie Gajdos

Opinion

Worshipers pray in distance from each other at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, amid coronavirus restrictions, March 26, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Ammar Awad.

When life gets tough, I take a deep breath and close my eyes. I’m instantly transported to the rugged markets of Jerusalem. I smell the scent of nana tea in the air. I hear the sounds of bustling shoppers haggling with vendors. Underneath me, I see the cobblestone steps on which many great leaders have walked, picturing Jesus leading the disciples down such a path. This land is full of history. It is my happy place.

People at my Eastern Orthodox church jokingly ask me when I’m converting to Judaism. They assume that my two trips to Israel and my Middle Eastern advocacy work are indicative of Jewish heritage. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to explain why I feel such strong ties to the land of Israel.

I grew up in a religious Slovak-American family. I went to church every Sunday, read the Bible during services, and made my First Communion. But it was the people of Israel who brought these stories to life for me.

I grew up in Staten Island, amidst a sea of white Catholic Italians, so my exposure to diversity was limited. As a first-generation American living in a homogeneous community, I saw the United States in a skewed way, and noticed that my culture was misunderstood. None of my peers understood why I celebrated Christmas on January 7, or could locate Slovakia on a map. It was difficult to connect to others; I felt culturally isolated. It was not until I got to Baruch College that I realized how rich the diversity of New York City truly is.

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When I walked through the doors of Baruch for the first time, I felt overwhelmed. I was not used to seeing so many unique people under the same roof. It was difficult to find a sense of community at a school with over 15,000 students. This all changed the day that I heard about Israelead, a trip run by Hillel at Baruch for non-Jewish student leaders to travel to Israel. It would be my first time traveling abroad by myself, as well as my first time directly interacting with Jewish culture.

Judaism intimidated me. It was a close-knit religion that I knew little about.

I was worried that while in Israel, I would do something to embarrass myself. This feeling persisted when our group visited the Western Wall on the first Shabbat of the trip. As I entered the women’s section, I was surrounded by sights and sounds that were foreign to me: The melismatic sound of Hebrew prayers falling from women’s lips. The sight of people reverently bowing their heads. And then the touch of a hand pulling me towards a group of women singing together. We spent hours singing and dancing together in the moonlight. My initial shock was replaced by electrifying excitement. I had never experienced such a warm embrace from a community outside of my own. It’s a feeling that I will never forget.

Swimming in the Dead Sea and spending time with my peers in Tel Aviv enabled us to form strong relationships in a matter of days.

We laughed as we floated helplessly in the crystal-clear Dead Sea, unable to stop ourselves from rising to the surface. We cried together when we visited Yad Vashem, our hearts breaking as we listened to the names read aloud at the Children’s Memorial. We became connected; a microcosm for everything that Israel stands for: community, acceptance, and perseverance.

But my journey to Israel was not without challenges. I longed to learn more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other territorial crises in the Middle East. One year later, I returned to Israel as a student mentor on a trip organized by the David Project. And just a few months later, I became a National Student Board member for that same organization, in an attempt to better understand the struggles of communities that are divided by territorial conflicts. The impact of international policies on human rights and the role of the media on public perception astounded me. I intended to use these experiences as a stepping-stone for further learning.

I spent every summer after that volunteering abroad. In Sri Lanka, I explored the rivalry between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, then moved to Thailand’s Golden Triangle region to work on an anti-human trafficking project. In China, I investigated the country’s tumultuous operations in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Taiwan; while in Georgia, I discovered the long-term effects of communism on small cities. With each new place that I traveled to, I found myself reflecting on my desire to tell the stories of people who aren’t represented in the mainstream narrative told by large media outlets. And so my dream of becoming an international human rights lawyer was born.

Traveling to Israel was a stepping stone to self-discovery. It was a journey that awakened me to the complexities of the world, pushing me to ask questions instead of accepting hearsay. It was an experience that brought me to my Hillel family, helping me meet people who were more similar to me than I could have ever expected. From Australia to Cuba, I used what I learned in Israel to challenge my own biases and continue to learn.

Israel is more than just a place to me. It’s a way of life. To be an Israeli means to live life to its fullest, working each and every day to be and do better. This is the feeling that motivates me. Israel helped me find my purpose.

Annmarie Gajdos is currently the Communications Coordinator at the Integrity Senior Services. She is a proud graduate of Macaulay Honors College at Baruch College, CUNY, and the Valedictorian for her graduating class of 2020.

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