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It tasted like jet fuel. But that didn’t surprise me, after all, I was kissing the tarmac at Ben-Gurion International Airport, as is customary upon arrival in Israel. What did surprise me, however, was that it wasn’t the type of high-octane fuel I’d been promised in which you can taste the spirituality of a country that’s sacred to three of the world’s oldest religions.
This could have been the cracked asphalt of LAX or O’Hare, and I never would have known the difference. For my entire life I’d been told by overbearing relatives and well meaning friends exactly what I would see and how close to God it would make me feel, but no one ever told me that under the looming nose of our Lufthansa jet I would meet a close friend.
Some people call him doubt, some uncertainty. When the two of us are together, I call him skepticism. Throughout the next year and a half, this uncertainty about my feelings towards Israel, and this craving to feel the spiritual connection I’d been promised would stay by my side, never faltering, never fading, simply waiting. He was with me the next morning while I got breakfast, in the cab ride to the historic old city of Jerusalem, and constantly pinching and poking me as I wandered around until I found myself at the Western Wall, the holiest site in the Jewish religion. And yet I still couldn’t feel the high-octane spirituality I’d been promised.
So I did what any mature teenager on a quest for self-discovery would do: I faked it. I rocked and swayed as I recited psalms written centuries ago, but the whole time I was scanning the crowd around me, hoping to find on their faces the answers I couldn’t find in myself. The ice cold glares of the rabbis engrossed in fervent prayer told me that they could see right through my facade, and that they didn’t approve of my doubt.
It would take a year and a half of searching until I finally found my answers on a relaxing summer night at camp. I had spent the last three weeks exploring my Jewish identity with teens in my youth movement from America, Israel, South America, and the Balkans. We decided to try something unorthodox and hold our Friday night prayer service outdoors. As we started to pray, I stared into the eyes of my fellow campers, searching for answers just like I had in Jerusalem. A shy Albanian looked back at me and smiled. Coming from a country with fewer than 40 Jews, this was his only chance to feel part of a Jewish community.
I realized then that the community we had built together was bigger than any one of us. Comprised of our devotion and faith mixed with our doubt and uncertainty, it was a community that radiated the pluralism and acceptance on which our youth movement was founded. While the other campers chanted the prayers, I closed my eyes and let the images of famous tourist sites flood my memory. I revisited them, alone this time, without the pressures or expectations I’d had when I first saw them. I had stood together with my doubt, fully prepared to go through the motions of praying, but when I opened my eyes from a truly transformative service, he was gone.
Losing a friend is challenging, and adapting to life without them is even harder. He may be gone, but I know exactly where to find him. He is lying in the noxious fumes of Israeli airports, waiting in the murky depths of the seaports, and relaxing on the rusty planks of the train tracks, waiting for the chance to befriend another skeptical teenager. The truth is that we just grew apart. And if you ask me, I don’t think we were right for each other in the first place.
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