Throughout their struggle, the citizens of Israel have formed a unique identity of national pride of which I, as an American, am jealous.

NFTY-EIE High School in Israel summer 2014; courtesy NFTY.

NFTY-EIE High School in Israel summer 2014; courtesy NFTY.

By Gabi Aklepi

I just returned from an incredible summer on the Union for Reform Judaism’s NFTY-EIE High School in Israel Summer Session. Being in Israel during the war with Hamas had an unusual effect on me. I thought I’d be afraid, but truthfully, I had never felt safer. Beyond feeling safe, I felt proud to be in Israel. In fact, I’ve never before felt more connected to Jewish history or the Jewish people.

I have never been very patriotic. In fact, very few of my peers show any affection for America. In America, citizens may fly flags on a few national holidays, but in general, outward patriotism isn’t the mainstream – amongst my friends, disliking America seems to be the norm. In Israel, the teens my age are already preparing for army service and are fiercely dedicated to their country. They live surrounded by soldiers and veterans, and everyone has been affected firsthand by the struggles of being the sole democratic country among a sea of unstable societies. Throughout their struggle, the citizens of Israel have formed a unique identity of national pride of which I, as an American, am jealous. People in Israel are patriotic; during wartime they fly their flags, and send letters and pictures to soldiers. We drove past massive banners every day showing support for the soldiers, and on the radio we heard somber, meaningful music. All of Israel is united through adversity; it’s not just those most closely involved, or those already in mourning for fallen soldiers.

Despite this national sadness, people in Israel are more resilient and braver than anyone I’ve ever seen. The citizens of Israel keep moving, keep working, keep innovating, and, most of all, they keep living. The country doesn’t stop because of conflict; the people here are well protected by their government, military, and hard “sabra” shells.

Although my parents – a rabbi and an Israeli – weren’t as nervous as the other parents of kids on our trip, they were obviously concerned about me being in Israel during war. As for me, I’m glad I was in Israel during this tumultuous time. Both my parents met in Israel; my father served in the IDF, and they had both recently returned from an Israel trip a few days before I left. The other participants, whose parents had no experience with Israel, were constantly calling and emailing in an attempt to calm their kids, but we weren’t the ones who were scared – they were. We realized by the end that our parents were not only an ocean, but a world away, and there was no placating them. We couldn’t explain our feelings of safety and security, and they couldn’t understand it.

Luckily, our madrichot (counselors), teachers, and principal made us feel safe by keeping us in the loop with daily updates as the situation unfolded. In our history class we learned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the beginning through the present day. If I were home, I would’ve felt completely disconnected and useless; I would have barely been aware of the details of the conflict. Being here, I felt a part of something significant.

When I go back to school and am bombarded with question by my friends who watched this war unfold on the news, I’ll tell them all that I learned. I’ll mention to them about the siren we heard while visiting fresh graves at the national cemetery. More than that, I’ll tell them about the patriotism, bravery, commitment, and perseverance of the people of Israel. When I told my fearful friends about how relatively calm the situation was for me, they were very surprised. They mostly thought that I spent the entire time hiding in bomb shelters and fearing for my life.

Towards the end of our trip, the 20 of us were sitting in our “Zula” (hangout room) when one of our staff members ran into the room saying that the local kibbutzniks of Kibbutz Tsuba, where our program was housed, had invited us to be a part of their massive kibbutz portrait to be sent to soldiers from the kibbutz. They have a tight-knit community of a few hundred people who work, live, and spend every aspect of their lives together. In this very personal show of support for the IDF, they considered us part of their community. We weren’t tourists, we weren’t intruding Americans, we were Kibbutzniks showing our support for our soldiers and our country. It was the greatest feeling of community I’ve ever had, and it was a feeling that is unique to Israel.

Gabi Aklepi is 16 years old and a member at Bet Breira Samu-el Or Olom in Miami, Florida. She spent 6.5 weeks in Israel with the Union for Reform Judaism’s NFTY-EIE High School in Israel Summer Session.