What Israel Means to Me
By Annmarie Gajdos, Baruch College
I sit here, struggling to find the adequate vocabulary to describe what Israel means to me. Israel, a country so socially charged and heavily debated that I do not know where or how to begin describing it. Israel, a country full of so much history and beauty, but also suffering from reoccurring problems and mass injustices. How can a place be so heavily divided yet also unified at the same time? How can it be a haven for some but a prison for others?
Israel has been an important part of my narrative throughout the course of my undergraduate career. I have reflected on my two trips to Israel numerous times as a college student, trying desperately to grapple with what I have learned and form my own justified opinions about the country. Still, it’s difficult to put into words why Israel holds such a special place in my heart. But I’ll give it a shot.
Flashback to three years ago when I first stepped into Baruch College as a mere freshman, searching for a sense of community and belonging, as well as yearning to discover my own identity. When I heard about Hillel’s trip to Israel for student leaders, I knew that it was an experience I had to be part of. As the daughter of two Carpatho-Rusyn Eastern Orthodox Christians from Slovakia, discussions about religion and Israel were a crucial part of my upbringing. Much to my surprise, I was selected as a member of the inaugural cohort who would visit Israel for a 10-day experiential learning journey over Winter break.
My first trip to Israel was an exhilarating blur of colors, sights, sounds, and smells. I do not think that I will ever be done processing what I saw there. The strongest picture in my mind is that of the crowded markets of Jerusalem. They had an other-worldly feel. I was engulfed in the sweet scent of pomegranates, the relaxing fragrance of nana tea, and the vibrant beaded objects lining the sides of most shops. As I walked the Via Dolarosa, as Jesus Christ had done centuries prior, I felt immense religious spirituality. Visiting the site of Christ’s resurrection on Orthodox Christmas was indescribable. I felt connected to my religious beliefs and to my family, even though I was thousands of miles away from them. As we traveled deeper into Israel, the Bible stories that I have been told ever since I was a child, came to life before my eyes. I could envision Jesus lifting up nets full of fish in the Sea of Galilee, as well as he and his disciples traversing through the mountainous hills filled with olive trees.
Swimming in the Dead Sea and spending time with my peers in Tel Aviv brought us together and enabled us to form strong relationships in a matter of days, which was something I had never experienced before. We laughed together as we floated helplessly in the crystal-clear ocean, not able to prevent ourselves from rising to the surface of the water. We cried together as we visited Yad Vashem, our hearts breaking as we listened to the names read aloud in the Children’s Memorial. We cried even more as we shared our life stories and struggles on our final night in Tel Aviv. We became connected; a microcosm for everything that Israel stands for; community, acceptance, and perseverance.
When I came back home, Israel was the sole topic on my mind. I spoke to everybody I came into contact with about what I had witnessed there. Thus, when I was invited to become a David Project Campus Outreach intern, it seemed like a natural next step for me. I reveled in being able to share my experiences and thoughts on the country with others, planning multiple interfaith and cultural awareness initiatives on campus. But my experiences with Israel were still only breaching the surface.
The following winter, I attended the David Project’s Israel Uncovered trip as a student advocate. The trip opened up my eyes to a variety of issues that I had been blind to in the past. I started to unravel the many layers of history and struggles that Israel was founded on, specifically regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Listening to speakers from Gaza and Palestine made me realize that every story has two sides, both full of equal amounts of heartache.
I will never forget the day that we spent in the border-town of Sderot, where we were showed the rockets that fall into the town on a daily basis and the bomb shelters that residents had fifteen seconds to run to in the case of an emergency. A group of school children had created a statue out of discarded rockets, a symbol of their ability to find beauty in even the deadliest of objects. Although the significance was truly astounding, it haunts me to this day. To think that Israeli and Palestinian families have to live with the uncertainty of knowing whether or not their children will live to see another day because of uncalled for warfare, is shocking.
This trip was a rollercoaster of emotions for me. It forced me to reevaluate everything I knew about Israel, as well as my stances on various issues that the country was facing. But it was also a trip filled with new memories, friendships, and an unquenched thirst for learning more about the Middle East.
Upon my return from Israel, I doubled down on my efforts to create effective Israel programming on campus. I didn’t want to force ideologies on any students, but rather wanted to initiate meaningful discussions about world politics and current events. I was delighted to be selected as a National Student Board Member so that I could continue my efforts around the country. Working with the 2018-2019 National Student Board allowed me to create campus-wide initiatives, such as a Holiday Toy Drive, to further enhance our presence on over fifty campuses. This experience was a valuable way for me to share my stories and ideas with the entire David Project network.
People often ask why Israel is so important to me, especially since I’m not Jewish. My answer is that Israel is a country for people of all religions, a place where many of the world’s greatest questions are being asked in a historical context. Never before have I experienced a place that is so peacefully heterogeneous but divisive at the same time. Jews, Catholics, Christians, and Muslim citizens live together, forming a strong neighborly connection with one another, despite being on seemingly opposing sides in territorial and religious battles.
I truly believe that if we can one day peacefully solve the issues occurring in Israel, then we can replicate the same process of conflict resolution in other nations around the world. The key to progress is forming meaningful relationships that are founded on trust, an aspect of campus advocacy that the David Project values as one of its core facets. Relationship building is the first step towards changing the world’s perception of Israel. It is also the first step in repairing the conflicts occurring in that very same country. The David Project and its network of interns are triumphantly leading this change.