I used to look through the piles of photo albums stashed away in my parents' closet. Photograph after photograph of my mom, at 18, in her Israeli army uniform, depicted a world I simply could not comprehend. My parents moved to the United States when I was only six months old, and I had grown to worry only about my GPA, Grey's Anatomy and the latest tips in Cosmo.
This changed when I volunteered for the Israeli Army at the Mount Hermon combat base this summer. After long days slogging through the varied and sometimes manual tasks I was assigned, I often sat in a parked Armored Personnel Carrier with fellow volunteers, looking up at the dense blanket of stars while talking about the extraordinary place we were in. It was at these times I finally felt overwhelmingly proud of my birth country.
I may be a Jew, but I didn't grow up immersed in Judaism. I didn't go to Hebrew school. I didn't have a bat mitzvah. I don't always keep kosher. Israel is in the news every day, so the hardship and controversy there is no secret. Everyone has the right to an opinion about Israel, but it was only after experiencing the culture that I understood the passion of the Israeli people and how important their cause is.
My interest in going to Israel began when I reunited with classmates at my high school last May. One of them told me he was going to spend a week in Israel. He had no familial connection to Israel and is not Jewish. He simply felt compelled to go.
On the other hand I am Jewish, but I had no memory of the place and no idea of what Israel's existence meant.
Two months later, I jumped off the bus that brought us to the base. I stood with the group assigned to Mount Hermon in front of where the Israeli flag is raised each morning.
We gawked at the Israelis walking around in fatigues with guns and drinking Coca-Cola. They gawked back.
We were 11 foreigners with too much luggage, civilian clothes and sporting strange accents. Little did any of us know, no matter how different we seemed, by the end of our stay we all found a deeper understanding of Israeli identity. I gained a deeper love for my religious homeland.
I remember the first time I put on the Israeli Defense Forces uniform. Turning around to show the others, one of my friends said, "You know, you actually look like an Israeli soldier."
At that moment, for the first time, I felt intensely close to the country where I was born. I had never felt that sense of connection. Even though my service was not compulsory like nearly everyone else's, I wanted to feel the passion I imagined soldiers feel as they stand, weapons at their sides, and salute the Israeli flag.
For three weeks I felt like one of them.
In the end, serving in the Israeli Army is about serving your country.
In his campaign speeches President Barack Obama stressed the importance of young people taking service positions in America,
like Teach for America and AmeriCorps. In Israel kids our age don't have a choice. Israelis gain the same "growing up" we supposedly do in college in the army. It's a different lifestyle and a different mentality.
This is what appealed to the volunteers on my trip. Some, who were not even Jewish, still wanted to experience serving a country instead of having a country serve them.
Now I understand why my family glorified Israel growing up. Israel was founded on the philosophy of service to country. In Isaiah, God says Jews are to be "a light unto the nations." Israel's very existence enrages many, but the country has risen above and forged a unique pride and identity--and fulfilled an increased need to defend itself.
Every Jew, regardless of birth country, should feel a loyalty to Israel. Jews join the Israeli army to defend their people, who have a millenia-long history of oppression.
Israel will never be a defense superpower like America, so protectiveness
toward Israel is felt by Jews anywhere.
In America, we take what our country provides. In Israel, I learned that it benefits everyone to be loyal to a country-whatever country that may be-and to serve it.
Now, instead of looking at photographs
of my mom, I'm looking back at photos of me on the base smiling with soldiers. I still rely on Cosmo for healthy lifestyle tips, I still worry about my GPA and I still feel the need to keep up with Grey's Anatomy, but I identify much more with Israel than I did before. And who knows-maybe one day I'll actually join the Israeli army for more than just three weeks.