By Eric Lightman
A year after I left Israel I found myself on my couch, in my low-end apartment in the West End of Richmond Virginia, with the girl I was dating at the time. An expression on her face prompted me to ask her what she was thinking about.
She paused. “Remember our first date, when I was really nervous and stressed? It was the three month anniversary of the shootings at Tech.” She was a Virginia Tech student and an EMT with the volunteer fire department in Blacksburg. “Being back home for the summer,” she continued, “without my friends from school, is really hard.”
I blinked. And then I held her because I knew I understood.
I glanced at my IKEA coffee table and saw, under the removable glass top, my collection of photos I put there when I moved back from my year-long trip in Israel.
I pulled away and muttered, “I'm sorry. I know how difficult this is.” I began to recount some of my experiences in Israel—having friends move to Beer Sheva the morning it was struck by a suicide bombing, missing by chance a bombing near the Tel Aviv bus station, and again just missing an explosion of gunfire at a Tel Aviv night club.
“No one can understand the experiences I had except the people that were with me,” I told her. “That's not to say that our experiences were so out of the ordinary, but they were unique. Even though I have lost touch with some and am losing touch with others, I share something with those people that I'll never share with anyone else. That's why I keep their pictures on my coffee table and look at them almost every day.”
While she looked down at the table, I realized that, for me, Israel had become much more than a place on a map or a name in the Torah.
“So I get it,” I said as an unexpected tear rolled down my cheek.
You would never know by my daily routine that I lived in Israel for a year. I have central air conditioning and carpet in my apartment, I never speak Hebrew, I don't resort to yelling and finger-pointing to settle arguments, and I am in and out of the bank so efficiently that sometimes I leave my car running in the parking lot.
Yet, I keep those photographs on my coffee table (or on my walls, or on my end tables), because they take me back instantly, but not to memories of the desert landscape or ancient ruins, or the Mediterranean coastline. Rather, those pictures remind me of the people I was with. From roommates, colleagues, and friends to shop owners trying to screw me out of just one more shekel, cab drivers who feigned interest in my volunteer work, or random people in town inviting me over for Shabbat dinner, it is the personal interactions that I remember above all else. I have those pictures around me because it is those people in my pictures, and those people only, who understand this important part of my life.
After spending a year in Israel, I can no longer envision the country as a geographical location, political entity, or state. Israel to me is now the people within it, those who remain there in person and those who remain in memory.
It cannot be denied that, as a destination, Israel is beautiful and amazing and astounding. But the people you are with, the people you will meet, and the relationships that you form through living and working in the country, in times of elation and times of discomfort, are what truly make an Israel experience awe-inspiring and life changing.