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A journey of faith
Gainesville student discovers Israel, Jewish heritage
The group participates in sun salutations on Masada.

Here in the buckle of the Bible Belt, I am the little Jewish girl, safely exotic around Hanukkah and appropriately confused around Lent.

This summer in Israel, I was the Southern belle who craved sweet tea with falafel and may have said “y’all” a time or two. Caught somewhere in between and somewhere else entirely, I spent July in the Jewish state trying to figure out just where I fall.

The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel provided an all-expenses-paid summer program for 26 of the top Jewish high school seniors from the U.S. and Canada to Israel for five weeks. The aim is to cultivate understanding among the denominations of Judaism and educate and inspire the fellows to be active in the Jewish community and to contribute to the world in general.

That’s a mouthful. In short, I went to meet teenagers of my own faith, be exposed to new and opposing ideas, and discuss, debate and discover Israel in the process.

Immediately following my overwhelming joy at learning I had been accepted to BYFI came feelings of apprehension and inadequacy. It was easy to feel Jewish in Gainesville since I was pretty much the only Jewish kid I knew. But how would I compare to the other fellows?

In the beginning, my anxiety seemed to be justified: Every student was brilliant, offering commentary on Babylonian sages and contemporary Israeli poets whose names I could barely pronounce.

My questions were more to clarify than to contemplate, and for the first week and a half in the Holy City, I felt ignorant of my own religion, intolerant of my own culture and unintelligent as I tried to befriend these future leaders of the Jewish community.

Slowly, I began to see that I was not there by mistake. I had been raised in a Jewish home. I was not any less Jewish than any of them, only less traditional in observance.

As soon as I allowed the truth of this to sink in, I appreciated the opportunity I had not only to learn from the others, but to offer my perspective as well. My basic questions brought lofty conversations back to earth, and a fresh pair of eyes on an overdiscussed passage was invaluable at times.

We packed months worth of activities into those five weeks. An outstanding faculty of modern sages led our group discussions based on the day’s theme or centered on biblical or contemporary texts.

We had a multitude of speakers over the course of the summer, ranging from political activists and rabbis to authors and musicians. We were based in Jerusalem but we traveled all over the country, visiting major cities and historical sites. It was a balance of Jewish learning and studying and discovering the land and the people of Israel.

For one week we had a Mifgash (meeting) with a group of Israeli teenagers in a program that parallels our own. 

In our discussion about the difficulties of translation they had us pair up with an Israeli, try to think of a word in our own language that is untranslatable, and then explain to our partner. 

I could only think of “hunky-dory.” I explained it to Naphtali, then he started trying to translate his word to me, “yofi tofi,” which, it turns out, means “hunky-dory.” Pure luck that I found someone to equal my nerdiness on the opposite side of the globe.

Studying with such a diverse group provided the opportunity for me to understand why my Israeli home stay insisted that I make aliyah (move to Israel), how one boy logically rationalized God’s existence, or what significance a Talmudic text has to a 17-year-old in Seattle.

It transformed my religion from an ancient one into a living, breathing way of life, adaptable for modern man yet steadfastly enduring. To sing, worship, learn and bond with teenagers from every facet of the Jewish spectrum provided me with invaluable perspective as I returned to my life in Gainesville.

But all of a sudden, conversations with my friends were missing something. Where was the Hebrew slang, the Kosher raps, the existential crises and intellectual urgency to which I had grown accustomed?

The importance of community, in Judaism and in Bronfman, is both evident to me and prevalent in my life now. Before, I was a Jew in the Diaspora; now, I am a member of the international Jewish community because I have experienced it firsthand.

I have greeted strangers on Yehuda Amichai Street with “Shabbat Shalom” on Saturday afternoons and did not receive puzzled looks in return. I have hiked to the top of Masada at sunrise and swam in every major body of water that surrounds Israel.

I have wandered through the desert and partaken of the milk and honey (though the milk comes in a bag these days).

This trip was the highlight of my 16 years, and what’s wonderful is that it’s only the beginning. I have two more seminars with the group in New York, and I will be in contact with these people for the rest of my life.

This has opened up a whole new world to me that I am itching to explore, both religiously and intellectually. It may have been my first visit to Israel, but it will certainly not be my last.

Rachel Glazer is a Gainesville resident and a senior at North Hall High School.