When I started high school in Northern Virginia — at the crossroads of the geographical north and south, where our local news is national news — I quite frequently found myself discussing issues like abortion and immigration. I was confident about how my fundamental political beliefs often stemmed from Judaism. In contrast, I didn’t know how Israel and Zionism fit into my Jewish Identity.
For the past seven years of my life, I attended Jewish sleepaway camp, where we sang the Israeli national anthem every morning. For a long time, “Hatikvah” didn’t mean very much to me. I sang it because it was pretty, and everyone else was singing it. I knew its title meant “the hope,” but I didn’t pay attention to what that really meant. Recently, that changed, as I participated in the Margo and Yoram Cohen Israel Engagement Fellowship (IEF), a program run by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, where my peers and I studied and analyzed Jewish history, the modern state of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ever since the creation of Judaism, the Jewish people have been struggling. From slavery in Egypt to being expelled from Spain, to the Holocaust, there has never been a time where Jews have been truly accepted. After thousands of years of struggling, the Jewish people could have given up; the struggles the world seemed to keep piling onto us could have become too much to bear. But we didn’t give up. Instead, we kept fighting and fighting for “hatikvah,” for the hope — the hope that, someday, the “people of Israel” would return home bound us together.
President John F. Kennedy once said, “Israel was not created in order to disappear — Israel will endure and flourish. It is the child of hope and the home of the brave. It can neither be broken by adversity nor demoralized by success. It carries the shield of democracy and it honors the sword of freedom.”
Thanks to Israel Engagement Fellowship, I can confidently say that I agree with this. IEF helped me realize that for thousands of years, the Jewish people have been seeking refuge and freedom. In the state of Israel, at last, we have found these things. The next time someone tells me that I’m inhumane for supporting the cause that my family has sought for thousands of years, I can tell them the truth. I can tell them the cold, hard facts and I can share my story that I learned to tell in the Israel Engagement Fellowship.
I loved learning about Israeli politics, and I was fascinated by the different schools of Zionism. I know I’ll use my newly-acquired active listening skills for the rest of my life, and I’ll always have compassion for the Israeli soldiers at checkpoints, who make decisions every day that have more value and difficulty than any decision I’ll ever make. I also learned how to respect different viewpoints and have compassion for different narratives. The most important thing that the Israel Engagement Fellowship taught me was not part of the curriculum — nothing compares to the confidence in my beliefs that the program instilled within me.
There is something special about sitting in a room with people you have never met before and discussing a value that links you together. We did not all agree on everything; I think that if we did, our discussions would not have been nearly as enriching as they were. No matter how different my opinions were, or how farfetched my questions seemed, I was always assured that it was OK to think differently and OK to question, a lesson that I would not trade for the world.
At the end of every Passover Seder, we say, “Next year in Jerusalem.” This phrase used to bother me: I knew, after all, that I probably would not be spending next year’s Passover in Jerusalem. I recently realized, however, that the phrase was not saying that next year I will be spending Passover in Jerusalem. Rather, it was a prayer that somebody would be celebrating Passover in Jerusalem next year — that there even will be a Jerusalem next year. It is a hope that Israel will continue to be a Jewish state, where all people are free and democracy rules. It is not just a hope — it is the hope: it’s Hatikvah.
Allison Feinberg is a high school senior from Loudon County, Va., and recently completed the eight-week Margo and Yoram Cohen Family Israel Engagement Fellowship organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.