BBYO on the go: Kyle Price is third from the left. His friend, Jacob Herstein, is on the far right.
When someone asks me where I live, I immediately respond, “Scarsdale, New York.” One month ago, if someone had asked me where my home was, the answer would have been the same. Now I hesitate when asked this question. What does this person mean by “home?” Is home where my house is? If so, my home is Scarsdale. But what if the person were to ask where I feel most comfortable and secure? In that case, my home is Israel.
At the end of July I returned to New York from a three-week BBYO Summer Experience in Israel called International Leadership Seminar in Israel (ILSI). This marked my seventh trip to Israel. I already knew that I loved the land and connected to it deeply, so I didn’t expect a life-changing experience. Then again, I also didn’t expect a war to break out while I was there.
Over the course of the trip, I saw life proceed as usual despite the dozens of rockets being fired into Israel each day. To my surprise, though, no one seemed too panicked and nothing seemed too chaotic. There were several Israeli staff members on my trip, including one named Baruch, who were called to fight in Gaza a few days before the trip ended. While their homeland was under siege the staff didn’t seem afraid; their composure and toughness were admirable.
When my friends and family texted me to ask if I was safe, I assured them that I was the safest I’d ever been. I was surrounded by my best friends in my newly declared homeland. I was protected by the missile defense system and soldiers of the IDF, whom I respect immensely. Not only did I feel safe; I felt invincible. The strong Israeli attitude rubbed off on me, and I felt more assimilated into Israeli culture than ever before.
I came to Israel wanting to enhance my spirituality and learn more about my connection with Judaism. Israel was now my self-declared homeland and since I continually heard my friends and family refer to it as “holy,” I thought that at some point during the trip I’d realize that I not only love the Jewish people, but I also love Judaism. I expected this moment of realization to come while praying on the top of Masada, or while my eyes welled up with tears at the Kotel, or perhaps while talking to a bearded man named Avraham who made Kabbalistic art in Safed and said that everything was, “like, sooooo spiritual, you guys.” But the epiphany didn’t come at any of these places. Instead, it came during a conversation with my friend Jacob Herstein — a Jewish teen from Dallas — while walking through the tunnels that run alongside the Western Wall.
Jacob and I met last year at Kallah, a BBYO Summer Experience focused on Jewish learning. I admire his knowledge of everything from the teachings of important rabbis to the history of the Israelites. As I asked him questions about history of the First and Second Temples, about which I knew little, and as he answered each of my questions like a wise sage, I realized that I could learn a lot from Judaism. I could learn not just about the history of the Jews and the teachings of the Torah, but also about how to be a wiser, more spiritual individual who leads a life that makes other people want to be better — like Jacob, who made me want to be a better person.
On the last night of the trip, we had an incredible BBYO B’yachad event that brought together all of the teens from the various BBYO trips in Israel. We listened to Lynn Schusterman, a leading American philanthropist, and Matt Grossman, BBYO’s CEO, bring our trip to a meaningful conclusion with inspiring and passionate speeches about how important it was to be in Israel at a time that in spite of conflict brought unity.
Afterwards, on the terrace of The Israel Museum overlooking Jerusalem, I said goodbye to Jacob and told him how much I appreciated his help on my journey to becoming a better person and a better Jew. I then promised myself that I would follow through with this aspiration. My connection to Jacob strengthened my connection to Judaism, which made my already-strong bond to Israel unbreakable. On each of my previous trips to Israel, I repeatedly fell in love with the people, the history and the country as a whole. On this trip to Israel, though, I didn’t just fall in love with Israel again — I became a part of it all.
Two things made the trip life-changing for me: one was my newfound spirituality and strengthened religious connection to the land of Israel. The other, as backwards and confusing as it may seem, was the IDF, Hamas and the current situation. The war made me appreciate every aspect of Israel, from Masada to the Dead Sea to the Kotel to the Negev, for I now realize the sacrifices that are made each day to keep the Jewish state and all of its people alive and well. It is for these reasons that my trip to Israel with BBYO made Israel my home.