Before I left I didn't expect to be riding a bus in Israel. But just last week I found myself climbing aboard bus #6 and handing my four shekels to the bus driver, who was exchanging cheerful greetings with the school girls behind me. I felt completely at ease as we rode past the eggshell-white homes and date palms that line the streets of Ashkelon.
This was not the first time that I have found my previous perceptions of life in Israel proven wrong. Even as I defended my choice to spend ten months in Israel as a participant of Project Otzma to family and friends, I was secretly harboring my own reservations, shaped by violent televsion images and tragic newspaper headlines. I expected Israelis to be nervous, depressed, and somewhat biter. I assumed that my freedom in Israel would be limited, that my activities would consist strictly of Hebrew classes and volunteer work with immigrants and members of the community. It's okay if I can't travel the country, I told myself before I left, and I can certainly survive a year without going to bars or cafes.
Now I realize that being in Israel isn't about surviving but living. In spite of the ongoing violence, Israelis share a positive energy that I've been able to experience repeatedly since my arrival in Israel three weeks ago. I attended a music festival teeming with teens in the center of Jerusalem, sang songs at the dinner table of a family that hosted me for Shabbat dinner in Safed, danced until sunrise in Tel-Aviv, and had tea with a young Israeli couple I met while sitting on a cliff overlooking the Negev Desert.
Even ordinary days are filled with interactions that affirm my sense of comfort and security here. On that same bus ride, when I asked the elderly woman beside me which bus-stop would take me to my destination, she told me with a smile. She then took my arm to slowly explain how I might then walk from the stop to Beit Canada, the immigrant absorption center that is now my home. She was no friendlier than the woman at the shuk, the outdoor market, who put down her sacks of fruit to help me pick out the best red peppers. Or the man at the falafel stand who gave me an extra tray of falafel balls when I told him about my stay in Israel.
Nor were they any warmer than the owner of the newspaper stand who asked me where I was from and then described her own immigration to Israel from Argentina. Naturally I feel safe here - no one is a stranger.
There is a joke that goes like this: Why hasn't the Messiah come to Israel? Because his mother wouldn't let him. Indeed, my greatest challenge so far has not been my adjustment to Israeli society but rather the adversity I faced to my decision to live in Israel while I was still in America. I am lucky to have a family here that has supported my participation in Project Otzma despite their fears.
Now that I am here, I can enjoy the warmth of belonging that I could only experience in Israel. And I share these experiences with others happy to be here. One evening, Project Otzma and the immigrant absoption center co-sponsored a dance for the young adults at the center. At the end, the DJ played "Shalom Aleichem" and everyone sang along. I looked at the people around me - from South America, Ethiopia, France, Russia, Turkey, India, the USA, and realized that I had never been in a room with so many different-looking Jews who were all so happy to be in one place.