I am a Zionist. Sometimes I wonder what those words really mean, despite my visceral knowledge of their truth. Is it because I love Israel? Because I lived here for five years and have been back more than ten times? Is it because I am Jewish and I feel a connection to my homeland? I have often struggled to put into words what exactly makes me a Zionist, and now that I have embarked on Young Judaea Year Course, a nine month gap year program in Israel, it is imperative that I reach a conclusion. Year Course is split into three sections: the first four months I spent volunteering in Bat Yam, the next four I am spending studying Judaics and Zionism, and the last month I will have different options to travel Israel. After having spent five months on Year Course and looking forward to the next four, I am finally able to answer the question of my Zionism satisfactorily.
The first four months I spent living in this glorious country were spent in the notoriously not-so-glorious Bat Yam, a growing beach town just south of Tel Aviv. Every Israeli I knew reacted the exact same way when I told them that I was going to be living in Bat Yam; the two main responses were simply, why? And the more entertaining but discouraging, what did you lose there? When I actually arrived I was taken by surprise by the beauty of the city despite what everyone had told me. There were small, well-kept parks all over the neighborhood, a lovely boardwalk area, and an amazing view of the Mediterranean Sea, with gorgeous sunsets lighting up my apartment every evening. My experience of volunteering in Bat Yam, however, is what helped me connect to my Zionism. It started out seemingly uninteresting and not impactful, but it quickly turned into one of the most rewarding times of my life.
I found out what Zionism meant to me through the energy and sweat I put into my work on the small, educational agricultural farm inside the city of Bat Yam. When I learned that I would be volunteering on a farm I was very excited, but my excitement quickly disappeared within the first week when the majority of the work I did was mowing grass, cutting tree branches, or pulling weeds, all chores that I do around my house in America. I was being naïve when I complained about that lack of exciting farm work in the first couple weeks of my volunteering. I did not think about the fact that this farm relies on the volunteers Young Judaea sends it every year to keep the place running and looking beautiful (there were four full time employees who kept the grounds, all over the age of 60). In a few short weeks, the other volunteers and I had turned the farm into a beautiful place and had started growing and planting all sorts of flowers and trees. I was enjoying my work but something was still missing, I could have been doing the same thing nearly anywhere in the United States.
The realization of how truly Zionist my work on the farm was struck me out of nowhere one day. I was in the middle of pushing a wheelbarrow full of tree branches, out of an innumerable series of wheelbarrow loads of branches I had to cut down and clear, when I stopped in my tracks and had to process my thought because it hit me with such clarity. I realized that what I was doing had been done by people my age without exception for nearly 100 years. I was part of a long line of Zionist youth who decided to move to Israel to work the land and improve it. The connection that the Jewish people have to the land of Israel has been spiritual for thousands of years, but for the past 100 years the connection has been a physical one, full of blood, sweat, and a love for the national Jewish home. Realizing that I had become a part of that physical connection meant more to my identity as a Jew than anything else that I have experienced in my entire life. That was when I knew that I will always love this country and consider my home, no matter where in the world I am living.
Ilan Goldstein, a Rockville resident, is in Israel studying in the gap-year program Young Judaea Year Course.