Maria Pulido (at left) was born in Bogota, Colombia and moved to the United States three years ago to pursue her higher education. She is currently a student at Florida International University and is double majoring in International Relations and Environmental Science. On campus, she is the current Speaker Pro Tempore of Student Government, the President of the International Students Club, and the Secretary of the Wine To Water club, an organization that seeks to help people in underdeveloped countries who don’t have access to clean water and that advocates for water sustainability.
“Did you ever feel that you were in a dangerous situation? What is it like to walk around in the part of the world with the most political and religious tension?” I had been talking to my family for more than two hours about my experience in Israel, but when they asked me those questions I didn't know what to say. Ten days before I would have wondered about the same things, but now the hostile image of Israel that the media portrays seemed so distant to me that I didn't understand immediately why I was being asked those questions. I realized, in that instant, that although I had been exposed to the conflict and had learned about its enormous impact on Israeli society, my memories of Israel weren't shaped by religious or political tensions. Instead, they were informed by moments when I found myself immersed in traditions of thousands of years, in places so beautiful and meaningful that they didn't seem real, and surrounded by people who wanted to share their story and coexist.
One of those moments was Shabbat evening in Jerusalem. I was especially happy that day because the city was covered in snow. I am from a tropical country in South America and I live in Florida now, so snow is something I don't see very often. I was enjoying the scenery and playing with the snow while our group was making its way through the empty streets of Jerusalem. After some walking, we met Nati, a Jewish man from South Africa who was about to take us to his home to have Shabbat dinner with him and his family.
As soon as I stepped into Nati's home I felt welcome. His wife, Michelle, offered me dry socks. Then we sat around a table, sang together, blessed the wine and the challah, and shared stories and flavors. This moment was so impactful to me because the environment was very different from anything I had experienced before. I was wearing someone else's socks, eating food from the same plates and drinking wine from the same cup as 20 other people. The western concept of 'personal space' disappeared, and it felt liberating. I felt that I was part of something special, a community of people who wanted to share their traditions, their stories, and their happiness.
After we ate lots of hummus, fresh vegetables, and grilled eggplant, Nati asked us about our work on our respective campuses. It was amazing to hear my friends, who I had met only 8 days ago, but with whom I had already shared life-transforming experiences, talk about how they worked to help others and educate their communities. I learned so much from them. This group of people and Israel itself made me start looking at the world through a different lens.
I share my thoughts on this Shabbat dinner, and relate it to my family's questions about violence and safety in Israel, because the instant I walked out of Nati's house and started to internalize everything that had just happened I came to a very important realization: I was in an area that many perceive as one the most conflicted and dangerous in the world, but there, in a silent and snow-covered Jerusalem, while I shared food and listened to people's stories of leadership and coexistence, I felt more at peace than I had ever felt anywhere else in the world.