By Lila G, NFTY Northwest
As a young Jewish girl growing up in Seattle, I struggled with my connection to Israel. I had no Israeli relatives, I had never been there, and I was too young to understand what being pro-Israel meant. It seemed as if the only thing connecting me to a land 6,816 miles away was my Judaism. My religious school teachers often talked about praying at the Kotel, walking the streets of Tel Aviv, and swimming in the Dead Sea. They described Israel as this unbelievable homeland where you were surrounded by 6.5 million people who shared a key part of your identity, your faith. The thing was, at age eight my Judaism wasn’t important to me. I celebrated the major holidays and went to religious school, but I never questioned why I was Jewish and what that meant for me. How could I feel connected to Israel when I didn’t feel connected to the thing linking me to my supposed “homeland”?
Over the next few years, I had my bat mitzvah, started attending URJ Camp Kalsman, and visited Israel twice. Despite the significance of these Jewish experiences, I still didn’t feel the magic my peers described. I felt alone in my struggle to connect with my religious identity.
It wasn’t until I joined NFTY that Judaism became integral of my life, and consequently, my connection to the holy land became apparent. From then on, my passion only grew. I started educating myself, participating in programming, and asking questions to my parent, peers, and teachers. As I gain knowledge and try to form my own opinions, I found myself becoming lost in a sea of information larger than the Mediterranean.
My relationship with Israel is made all the more complex by the fact that I live in Seattle, which is full of passionate anti-zionist views. This is epitomized by school, where Israel is a hot button topic. People question my credibility on the subject “because my religious affiliation makes me clearly biased,” and correct me when I say Israel — claiming, “no, it’s called Palestine.” These two contradicting communities, NFTY and school, left me in a state of disarray. My rabbi once told my covenant renewal class that there will be times in our lives where we will be the only Jew in a room. As result, we will have to stand as the sole spokesperson for the entire Jewish community. When I started high school, where I was one of the only pro-Israel students, I had the weight of representing an entire country on my shoulders. I felt alone in my beliefs and the act of advocating for Israel started to feel like an uphill battle that I could lose at any moment, which led me to question my passion.
When I attended my first American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference, Summer Saban Leadership Seminar, in Washington D.C. this past summer, my passion was restored. I had never been surrounded by so many people who share my dedication to Israel education and advocacy. For once, I wasn’t forced to boil down such a complex topic into a few key points. Over the course of 4 days, I got to question and explore what it meant to pro-Israel without having to justify myself first. I was meeting people from all walks of life, living all over the United States, who each had different explanations for why they call themselves pro-Israel. I felt validated in every possible way.
AIPAC is a bipartisan lobbying group dedicated to promoting and strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship. They train activists of all ages, religions, races, and political parties to build relationships with members of Congress. They do not endorse candidates or take stances on domestic affairs and policies in Israel. Instead, advocates, such as NFTYites, meet with congresspeople from both sides of the aisle to ensure our government represents a pro-Israel outlook — no matter which party holds the majority. The result is the passing of pro-Israel legislation on topics that can range anywhere from foreign aid to a two-state solution (something that both AIPAC and the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) endorse).
From my time at Summer Saban, and most recently AIPAC’s Schusterman Advocacy Institute High School Summit, I have expanded my knowledge on what it means to be a pro-Israel teen living in the United States. I explored Israel in My State, an AIPAC initiative with a goal to teach communities how they are directly affected by Israel. I discussed why being pro-Israel is a progressive issue and what it means to believe in a pluralistic home for all Jews. I learned why Israel isn’t just a Jewish issue, but an American issue. I combined my skills from growing up in the Reform movement and participating in NFTY, with the initiatives and opportunities invested in students like me by AIPAC.
Be that as it may, I don’t agree with 100% of what AIPAC says — but that’s okay. The goal of these conferences is not to create AIPAC advocates, but to train new pro-Israel advocates. They teach us that a strong activist bases their actions off of a strong personal connection, and finding ours is the key to being successful. I attend these conferences to learn new skills and then go out into my community and use my knowledge to lobby for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship rooted in my own beliefs. Israel literally means, “to struggle with God.” I thought my own struggle with Israel was misguided and unacceptable, but little did I know that my journey was exactly what Israel stands for and questioning our understanding is not just normal, but encouraged. This community has taught me that I am not alone in my experiences and helped me explore what Israel really means to me. Through AIPAC I have become a better advocate, student, and leader. While I still struggle with Israel from time to time, I know that I have a place that understands and will help me find my way.