By Danielle Longo, participant in Masa Israel's Israel Teaching Fellows
Growing up as a Conservative Jew in Bloomfield Hills, I knew the basics of the religion and of Israel. I went to Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills. I celebrated holidays, went to shul and believed in God. That is, until I was 17 and my dad passed away. At that point, I pushed aside my religion.
Ten years later, I found myself with a master’s degree and no job, wondering what I was doing with my life. An email came from my sister about a 10-month program in Israel where I could explore the country and also gain teaching experience, something great for my resume.
I decided I had abandoned my roots for long enough. I packed my bags, said goodbye to my friends and family, and left in August 2011 to participate in the Masa Israel’s Israel Teaching Fellows program.
Since then, I have been fortunate to experience Israel: the culture, the people, the life. It has been an amazing experience. Last weekend, I attended a Shabbaton in Arad that included repelling in the desert as well as meaningful discussions about what it means to be Jewish and about connections we share in Israel and in the Diaspora.
What I will remember most was a one on-one exchange. An Israeli girl came up to me and said she really liked my ring. I hadn’t spoken much to her during the trip, yet I took the ring off my finger and gave it to her. She was shocked. She said she couldn’t take it. I told her it wasn’t that expensive, and I wanted her to have it.
“I really can’t take this,” she said. “I don’t want to perpetuate the stereotype about us … the one where it is said all Israelis do is take, take, take.” I couldn’t believe my ears. Actually, my experience here has been quite the opposite. To me, what Israelis do is “give, give, give”… and give some more.
Before my journey, I was warned about the aggressiveness of Israelis, their lack of patience and their rudeness. I was told this is the culture and, while they can seem “nasty,” just to go with it and enjoy myself.
One of my first experiences in Israel was on the bus. An elderly lady had trouble getting on and fell. Immediately, people rushed to help her: a Haredi Jew, an Arab and a person wearing everyday clothes. I discarded everything I had been told. I experienced nothing but generosity: invitations to dinner, rides home, people making sure I had a place to go on Shabbat.
Thanks to Israel Teaching Fellows, I can say with 100 percent certainty that I have changed at least two lives here. The first was a fourth-grade boy. He was in one of my nonreader groups. I as told he didn’t know English, not even the alphabet. He was silent during the lesson. I asked him in my broken Hebrew how I could help him and why he wasn’t trying. He looked at me very seriously and said, “I’m bored in class.” In perfect English. When I informed the teacher, his curriculum changed and his life did as well.
The second life belonged to an Ethiopian girl facing abusive behavior. Her teacher came to me for advice, as I am a licensed counselor in the U.S. After speaking with the girl (through the teacher), I came to a hard conclusion neither the student nor the teacher wanted. I told the authorities about the situation. I was not aware of laws or rules in Israel, but I knew this little girl was in trouble. And even if she harbors negative feelings about me for saying something, I know I helped change her life — if only to try and teach her that she is important, and she matters.
This Israel experience has been one of the most challenging times of my life. It has brought much sadness, feelings of hopelessness and frustration. There were times I wanted to leave, to go back to Michigan, to see my family and live the life I knew. But I was brought here for a reason.
Looking back at these last few months, I know I have made a difference. My relationship with Israel is similar to that of a sibling: There are defi nitely times we don’t see eye-to-eye, and days we wish the other would just disappear. But it is with unconditional love that we realize we are each providing the other with something invaluable.
What comes next? It’s hard to say. I may return home to Detroit, or I may stay here and see how Israel and I can further our bond and help each other grow just a little bit more.
Danielle Longo, 27, lives in Rishon LeZion, just south of Tel Aviv, where she is an Israel Teaching Fellow through Masa Israel Journey, teaching English to Israeli students.
This article was originally published in the Detroit Jewish News on April 19, 2012.