Anxious, excited, and terrified: a combination of these emotions still doesn't begin to describe how I felt on my first visit to The Western Wall, or Kotel, a few years ago. A freshman in college, unsure of my connection to Judaism and my relationship with Israel, I walked up to the Wall, said the Shechechianu, put my note in a cold crack of the stone, and then expected the emotions to flow forth. But, nothing happened. I assumed that in not showing tears, laughter, or really any form of emotion, something must have been wrong with the wiring in my brain; I was legitimately convinced that I was the problem. It wasn't until I returned to school for spring semester and participated in Friday night services at UMass Hillel that I realized that my connection with Israel did not have to be a religious one and definitely did not have to be defined by my first experience at the Kotel. My relationship with Judaism and Israel evolved as I thought about this connection and deepened my involvement with Israel advocacy on campus. I returned to the Kotel with my family in the summer of 2012 to celebrate my brother's Bar Mitzvah. At the ceremony, I read Torah moments after walking over from the Western Wall. This experience solidified my own understanding of Judaism as a diverse and complex religion made up of diverse and complex people. In fact, I believe that this is what makes Judaism so beautiful. This experience helped me appreciate the Kotel from a historical perspective and channel my religious connection through my reading of the Torah at the Southern Wall surrounded by the ones I love.
I realized that my connection is one of a strong sense of Jewish and national identity, whether I'm at home in the States or in Israel. It is a connection of family; not necessarily the family that you're related to, but the feeling that you get when a polite stranger invites you to their home for a home cooked Shabbat dinner even after having just met you. This, to me, epitomizes the selflessness and compassion I so strongly identify with.
When we visited the Kotel on our first full day on Israel Uncovered, I was prepared. I went into the experience knowing that it's okay to not feel a religious connection to this particular site. I respect the Kotel's historical and religious significance and I feel an attachment to it in the same way I feel connected to the garden I planted in an Ethiopian Jewish community in Ramle. Israel Uncovered gave me the space to learn from and solidify these feelings.
The fact that I am on a trip surrounded by 33 students who represent diverse communities and opinions has helped me appreciate and strengthen my relationship to this place. Already, I have met so many fantastic people of all different backgrounds who are here to experience Israel for themselves and find out how they connect with Israel. This trip is already demonstrating that people of all beliefs and walks of life are capable of connecting to different aspects of Israel. I feel fortunate to have found mine, yet I am excited to grapple with my fellow participants as we continue to uncover Israel, Jerusalem, and its many beautiful complexities.
Sydney Weinberg is a Junior at University of Massachusetts Amherst majoring in Judaic Studies. She was born and raised in sunny south Florida and chose to trade in her flip flops and palm trees for snow boots and 24 hour drizzle and truthfully, she made the best decision of her life. At UMass she is very involved in Hillel and Jewish life including being the President of Koach, the Conservative Jewish group. Sydney is also the President of the UMass Student Alliance for Israel which through her involvement, she has found such meaning and motivation to forever be involved in the pro-Israel community wherever she may go. It is an understatement to say that her life revolves around Israel and Jews, an understatement that provides immense excitement and meaning as reason to get out of bed every day and share with everyone she meets!