If someone had asked me if I was Jewish two years ago, I would have replied, “Not really.”
My reasons for coming to Israel were purely professional. I was an engineer and wanted to make a transition to a career in public policy and gain experience in the field. I registered for Masa Israel’s Oranim Internship Experience, which promised exactly that.
When I landed in Israel, I had not stepped inside a synagogue since I was 15. I spent a lot of my childhood in Kansas, and the past three years working in Hawaii and had never had a Jewish community or been interested in having one. At the Florida Institute of Technology, where I earned my undergraduate degree, I had known other Jewish students, but I had not been close with any of them.
I’ve had the privilege of living in many places across the US and it is easy for me to move somewhere new and acclimate. But, I was shocked to discover such an immediate connection to Israel. Within days, I felt like Israel had me and I fell in love with Tel Aviv. Because my internship with the Deputy Mayor only required me to come into the office for meetings and presentations, I was able to do most of my work at cafés throughout the city and to get to know the owners. I was able to experience Tel Aviv during the day, often taking a break to explore one of the city’s many museums.
I’m a person who says what’s on his mind and found that the Israeli bluntness suited me well. Israelis don’t have the time to skirt around subjects. They want to know the answer they’re interested in right when they ask, and it was refreshing to be in such a frank society after my recent experience in the American corporate work environment.
Coming from a family with a rich family history, I also appreciated the way Israelis honor their soldiers. On Israel’s Remembrance Day, we went to a military base and saw pictures of fallen soldiers and became silent during the nation-wide siren. I also loved that Israel was a small country and that on a Friday, my friends could knock on my door, ask me to come with them to Eilat, and that within an hour, I was on a bus headed south.
Though I never expected it, Israel opened me up to gaining a better understanding of Judaism. In Israel, it’s impossible not to think about Judaism—it’s a natural part of the lifestyle and dialogue. Now I realize that Judaism is not just about religious practice. It’s a part of my identity and one that I feel the need to connect with.
Back in the United States, I am working for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin as a fundraising manager and for the Environmental Law and Policy Center as an analyst. I was recently accepted to Columbia University’s one-year MPA in Environmental Science and Policy. The only shortcoming of the program is that it starts in May and it is unlikely I will be able to return to Israel, or go visit my friends abroad, though I will certainly try.
My experience in Israel was definitely professionally helpful for me, but that was expected. What is surprising is that now I see Israel as one of my homes.