I came to Israel to learn.
I was studying at She’arim College of Jewish Studies for Women, a small but highly recommended school.
I was living in the Jerusalem suburb of Har Nof, a town built into the hills on the edge of the very young Jerusalem forest.
I found myself in a dorm (an apartment rented by the school) with seven other girls, three of whom were engaged, with weddings fast approaching.
It was all strange, and I felt lost.
But time went by and I began to adjust.
I had become addicted to my classes, and was making new friends every day.
I was learning about the country, both in classes and on tiyulim where we got to tour and see the land up close.
I even learned the bus routes, which was something totally new to me, having grown up in a two-car family in the suburbs of Northern California.
I was practicing my Hebrew everywhere I could.
Suddenly, I wasn’t lost.
I found things that threw me initially – aggressive speech, pushing to get on the bus – transformed into things I accepted, even understood.
People yelled, but more often than not it wasn’t in anger.
If someone was trying to get off a packed bus, every person within ten feet of them would be calling to the bus driver to hold the bus, to open the rear doors.
People argued – people loved to argue – but it wasn’t about being right and proving someone else wrong.
If you asked for directions you were running the risk of sparking a lively debate among everyone within earshot, but you would get directions.
On more than one occasion when I asked which stop I needed, someone would not only tell me the stop and point it out to me when we arrived, but would actually walk off the bus with me to point me in the right direction.
For better and worse, everyone was treated like family.
It surprised me.
But I think what surprised me most was my morning walk to school.
I left my building a little after 8 am, along with many of the neighborhood kids on their way to school.
One morning, a little boy, who couldn’t have been more than four years old, walked up to me and asked me in Hebrew, “Excuse me. Can you please walk me across the street?” He then offered me his hand.
I blinked at him, thinking of all the times as a child I had been warned never to approach or talk to strangers.
Then I took his hand and walked him across the street.
Once across he said, “Thank you!” and ran off to join some friends up ahead.
I asked about this when I got to school, and one of my teachers explained that this neighborhood was both very religious and very safe; the children were in more danger from reckless drivers than from kidnappers, so their parents had trained them to find a responsible-looking adult and ask for help crossing the roads.
I was raised in a safe neighborhood, but it still baffled me to imagine a world where the strangers on the street were there to befriend, to help you – to trust.
I think that sense of unity more than anything else was what turned my 8-month trip into an 18-month stay.
I had found a place where teachers warmly invited you into their homes, not to mention strangers you met in the market or on the bus.
A place where taxi drivers had strong opinions about your personal life, and children on the street offered you their hands.
In Israel, the idea of a Jewish Nation isn’t lip service; it’s a way of life.
There were so many things I loved about my time in Israel, so many things that I learned.
But this was my favorite: I learned what the word homeland means.
I learned that a Jew never has to be lost.