Corinne Gracyalny grew up in Silver Spring with little Jewish education or involvement. But thanks to a grandmother who never let her forget she was Jewish, the 25-year-old decided to visit Israel.
Gracyalny spoke by phone to Washington Jewish Week from the country, where she is spending 10 months in Netanya as a participant in Masa Israel’s Teaching Fellows program. She earlier participated in Masa’s exclusive Leadership Summit in Israel.
Tell us about your work in Israel with Masa Israel.
I am a Masa teaching fellow. I teach in Netanya, 30 minutes north of Tel Aviv. I started Sept. 1, and we leave June 30. I teach third- through sixth-graders. We teach reading comprehension, vocabulary. We read stories to them. I love my kids so much. They bring me so much joy, seeing the smiles on their faces when they understand something or get something right is a great feeling.
Could you speak Hebrew when you started teaching?
I had maybe three prayers and four words in Hebrew when I was coming to Israel. I have always been the one who languages naturally came to. I actually caught on pretty easily here. I speak Spanish and I speak English, but I can get by in French and Italian.
What was your Jewish upbringing in Silver Spring?
I never went to Hebrew school or Jewish camp. My mother is Jewish. My father is Roman Catholic, but neither is very religious. I grew up in a dual religion household. My parents, they are artists. They are really open to letting us be who we are. They always said, jokingly, “You can be whatever you want, whatever religion you choose, whether it is one of ours that you grew up with or not, or none at all.”
My grandmother was very adamant about her grandchildren getting to know Judaism, to take a look at it. That made me really want to go to Israel. In the winter of 2014, I applied to Birthright. I knew it would make my grandmother and grandfather very proud of me. I just took the plunge. Those 10 days changed my life in a way that I never thought was possible. It was during the Hamas war; that could have had something to do with it.
I think that the fact that I have such a rare illness made me want to become religious. I wanted to have someone, beyond the physical, to rely on. Anytime I knew I was going to need surgery, I wanted to believe someone was watching over me.
Can you explain your illness?
I suffer from a disorder called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. It affects me every day. I have chronic pain. There are some days where it’s very hard to get out of bed in the morning even though it’s warm here and it’s really sunny. It’s so difficult. The pain never goes away. Sometimes keeping up with the other 21 participants [in the teaching fellowship] is very difficult. Learning to hide my pain from them is very difficult as well.
I have come across some issues with breathing here. I’ve been in the emergency room three times in the last month and a half. And it’s been difficult taking time off from my school, because it is something I am so passionate about.
To be honest with you, I was in the hospital for six days and a few times after that. However, after all that, I climbed Masada on the snake path. That was one of the greatest feelings in the world.
It sounds like you are a very determined person.
Any person with a chronic illness, if they have enough willpower and enough strength and determination, they can do it. That has always been my motto with this illness. I made it to Israel. I am doing this program. My doctors and parents, they are worried, but at the same time, they are impressed.
Is teaching your career goal?
No, although I do love teaching here in Israel. I have a communication degree from University of Maryland, College Park. I want to do PR work and communications while simultaneously incorporating the Jewish life and my Jewish identity.
What are you hobbies?
My parents are artists. My dad has an MFA in painting and my mom has an MFA in photography. I do sing. I did musical theater in high school. I played the piano for seven years. I am artistic in that sense. I love to travel. The farthest place I have been to is Australia.
Tell me about your Hebrew name.
I did have my bat mitzvah on Birthright. I chose the name Zohara. It means “glowing.” The reason why my mother, grandmother and I, three generations, chose this name was because even in the darkest times, I can always use a quote unquote glowing light at the end of the tunnel no matter how long it may seem to be.