8 Weeks in Israel? = Lifelong Passion for Jewish Community

This is a guest post by Evan Stern, an author, advocate and consultant with deep twin cities roots. He is secretary of the local Hillel Foundation Board of Directors and is active with Temple Israel and the Minneapolis Jewish Federation. This is the first of two-part series introducing the author and the unique path that brought him to J Street. He will blog live from J Street’s upcoming ‘Giving Voice to our Values’ Conference in Washington, DC. Follow him on twitter: @Jewinspace.
Growing up, Israel was always a myth.
In Hebrew school and Sunday school, I learned about the biblical events that happened in Israel thousands of years ago. At Camp Teko and Herzl Camp, I developed an affinity for the culture of Israel: food, folk music, and the unique personality of a modern Jewish state. As a camper, I looked up to the staff in their abundant, multicolored Alexander Muss High School in Israel alumni shirts. Though I knew little about the program, I was determined to go.
So, in the spring of my Junior year, I embarked on a two-month long adventure—my first trip to the land of milk and honey.
Living in, traveling around, and learning about Israeli history from antiquity to modernity brought the state from the realm of mythic proportions into my daily life as a real, concrete place filled with both the historical landmarks of Jewish lore and a bustling, vibrant, 21st century population.
My trip to Israel was in 2001, a relatively peaceful moment in recent history. The only time I felt unsafe was when a cabbie misunderstood a friend’s directions to his relatives’ home and dropped us off in what we later found out to be a pretty hostile neighborhood.
Lost and knocking on doors, we were received by a couple who quickly took us in and, in typical Israeli fashion, served us unsolicited tea. The couple explained how close we were to the west bank, and reminded us that wandering down the wrong alley can be fatal. We were both shocked to discover how close we had come to grave danger, and relieved that this kind couple had taken us in and proceeded to safely deliver us to my friend’s relatives. Though we laugh about it now, that brush with danger brought us closer together and cemented us as dear friends for life.
That is the legacy of my Israel experience: While others found a deeper spiritual connection (crying at the western wall, adopting tzitzit, etc.), the biggest thing I got from Israel was a fantastic new circle of Jewish friends.
Don’t get me wrong; I loved Israel for all its intrinsic majesty. But the lingering impact of my trip is a group of Jewish peers that has grown and intermingled with other groups to form a broad community of now twenty-something Jews of which I’m grateful to be a part. Israel means a lot to me, but my central and sustaining Jewish identifier is the community itself.
Transitioning back after two months in Israel was difficult, but spending lots of time with my new Jewish friends made everything easier. My Jewish community doubled in size senior year, when I attended several North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) events.
I continued to seek out Jewish community at the University of Minnesota through Hillel and regular parties at the Sammies (ΣΑΜ) house. Serving as the Hillel student President drove me to discover organizations like the Minneapolis Jewish Federation and the United Jewish Fund and Council, and created leadership training opportunities galore. Five years later, I am now a member of the Hillel Foundation Board of Directors and active in the Federation and my home shul, Temple Israel.
None of this would have happened without my trip to Israel.
The appreciation for community that I developed in Israel has underscored every subsequent step I’ve taken toward Jewish organizations or individuals, and for that I am ever grateful.
(photo: free israel photos)