For almost a year and a half, I have been waiting to come to Israel on a study abroad program. As coronavirus continued to spread, my program, The Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI), was delayed over and over again. Eventually it was cancelled and while I was sad, I knew that I would be able to go next year.
For a lot of programs I think this would have been the end. There wouldn’t be much more to do since the government had closed the airport and prohibited non-citizens from entering. The staff would have gone home, the charities that funded it would have saved their money for another cause, and the government certainly wouldn’t have been involved at any point. However, this is not an ordinary program, Israel is not an ordinary country, and the Jewish people are not an ordinary community.
Instead of cancelling the program, AMHSI worked with the Jewish National Fund (JNF-USA), El Al Airlines, the Israeli Ministry of Health, and the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs to find a new way to bring everyone to Israel. And slowly but surely, each hurdle that kept us in the United States was cleared by the AMHSI administration and JNF executives. They chartered an El Al plane so that everyone would be allowed into the country, worked with the government to set up quarantine regulations, placed protective plastic sheets around campus, and secured the necessary permits and visas.
We all arrived in Israel a few days after Passover, a very symbolic start to the trip. On Passover the phrase “L’shana ha’aba b’Yerushalaim,” or “Next year in Jerusalem,” is sung at seders, representing the Jewish peoples’ desire to return to the homeland of Israel. In a press conference hosted by JNF to discuss the trip, which they referred to affectionately as Operation Zion, the CEO stated, “Flying home for a visit to the land of Israel, to the promised land, at the end of Passover, it’s an unbelievable momentous moment.” Stepping off of the plane into Israel just a few days after I had sung those words, “Next year in Jerusalem,” finally connected the prayer to my actions. Even though I had been to Israel a few times, this was the first time I had the prayer in mind while completing the journey.
The number of people who worked to make Operation Zion happen is something special. So much time, money, and effort was invested in getting us to Israel. I think this is a testament to two things: First, the desire of Jewish adults to foster a community between young Jews and second, Israel’s desire to teach the values of Zionism to Jewish kids across the globe.
Some of my friends who follow different faiths (Mormonism, Christianity, etc.) often talk about the lack of connection they feel to their community beyond their religious commonalities. Community is a buzzword that is constantly brought up by program directors and missionaries in religious spaces to create a sense of unity, but there is never much action put behind these words. My friends talk about how they feel a disconnect from others in their community when they aren’t in their religious spaces. However, in the Jewish community , I always find that plenty of time and effort is put into creating and then maintaining the community. And that even if I see someone who is Jewish out on the street, I feel an instant connection and know that my community is strong in and out of my religious spaces. I also find that, for many Jewish and Israeli programs, a large part of the goal is to instill Zionism in the kids that are attending. Zionism is the key to a strong Jewish state, as it is this point of view that creates advocates for Israel and a Jewish nation across the globe. However this value doesn’t just help Israel, it teaches a generation of kids important life lessons, such as how to stick to their principles or how to become a self advocate who stands up for what they believe.
Overall, I am so grateful for my new Jewish community at AMHSI. Growing up in Utah where I have been isolated from Jewish spaces, I have come to appreciate being in them when I have the chance, but the effort and time put into making this trip a reality is above and beyond what I have ever experienced before. The level of support has given me a new outlook on how important creating a community and being able to feel at home really is, as well as how important Israel feels every Jewish person is to their survival.