Ever since the first summer Camp JORI sent counselors-in-training to Israel, I have been desperate to go. Year by year, my Camp JORI friends and I watched videos of Israel and imagined ourselves finally stepping onto the homeland for the first time.
Last summer, my six friends and I said “next year in Jerusalem” probably every single day, and our group chat was going a mile a minute the entire school year about our upcoming trip.
After the longest plane ride of my entire life, being in Israel was such a surreal experience.
I never expected to feel anything at the Western Wall, and the first time we went there, I didn’t. But the second time at the Western Wall, on Shabbat, I had a different point of view. Instead of rushing to put my note into a place I thought it wouldn’t fall out, I was able to put my head against the wall and breathe.
It is such an amazing experience for anyone, because even if you don’t feel a strong connection to God, realizing that so many people around you do can be enough. Not only was I able to feel a closer connection to God at the wall, but I also felt a closer connection to the Jewish people of Israel and around the world.
As part of my program, I signed up to hike from the Mediterranean Sea to the Sea of Galilee. Sleeping outside, making our own food, hiking all day, and lots of bugs were only some of the fears I had about this experience – which is exactly why I signed up for it. I faced all of my fears on this hike, and had an unbelievable experience, along with around 15 of my Camp JORI friends.
If you asked me what my favorite place in Israel was, I don’t think I could pick one. In Jerusalem, you have the Jewish culture, the Kosher food, and the beautiful history. Safed has a totally different Jewish culture, modernized through the art that is everywhere. Eilat was so beautiful and warm, with the ocean and constant water activities to get out of the heat. The buzz of Tel Aviv was reviving, and the futuristic technology designed there is able to help so many people. The beaches and gardens of Haifa were absolutely stunning.
Those were only some of the places we went to and things we did, and I formed a connection and love for each of them.
This past year, during confirmation, the rabbi had private conversations with each student. I clearly remember him telling me that he believed I had not found my place in the Jewish religion.
Prior to traveling to Israel, I had a very strong connection with the Jewish people, but not the religion. Now, after this trip, my connection to the religion is very intense, and growing.
As I’m writing this, I have arrived home, and knowing I have a Birthright trip ahead of me in a couple of years is the only thing keeping me from taking the next flight back to Israel. I have already scavenged my fridge for hummus and made plans with my camp friends, but the longing to go back to Israel still hasn’t subsided.
I went into this experience looking to have a good time traveling the world with my friends; I didn’t believe people when they told me I would come back with a changed view of Judaism.
Did I have a great time with my friends in a foreign country? Of course. But I also found a relationship with God that I had previously believed didn’t exist.
DORA ELICE is a junior at Moses Brown School. She has been a camper at Camp JORI since 2011. She lives in Rehoboth, Massachusetts, and is already planning her next trip to Israel.