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About 14 million people in the world identify themselves as Jewish, but what does that really mean? I struggle with this question because, to me, Judaism represents more of a culture than a religion. While I might say prayers and light the Shabbat candles at home, I feel a more powerful cultural force at camp, where Judaism serves as an open invitation to feel comfortable. Over the summers, I found that the weeks apart from my family facilitated my independence, and the school year became a countdown between summers. As I gained confidence and learned to be comfortable with myself, I also discovered that the quiet kid in the corner has just as much to say, and that my irritating bunkmate may just be insecure.
At sixteen, I had the opportunity to travel to Israel—an experience that opened my eyes. While I consider camp to be the foundation of my identity, this trip acted as reinforcement. I’d grown up learning about Israel’s establishment as the Jewish Homeland, of its many wars, and the never-ending terrorist attacks—yet I felt distant, and found it hard to relate. Finally, I had the opportunity to walk the streets of Jerusalem, run my fingers through the cracks of the Western Wall, and try to put thousands of years of history into perspective. All I knew was that never before had I felt the way I did after placing that crumpled prayer for my father’s cancer recovery in the Wall, not knowing whether to smile or cry.
Two weeks into the trip, Hezbollah’s first missiles struck, and I will never forget witnessing thousands of families open up their homes to those whose homes had been destroyed. One night, I had the opportunity to meet with a few teens that had been evacuated from their homes, and I couldn’t help but notice a calm in their demeanor. I would have been terrified in their situation, but they told me that they had grown accustomed to the daily threats. I wondered how I would react if I were Israeli, knowing that in a year I would become a soldier. Would I have the courage to fight?
When I returned to America, I began to read the newspaper every day, something I had formerly only done for the comics. The media’s reports can be desensitizing, but it hit me that each casualty is a person like me, with family and friends. I realized that I don’t want to stand on the sidelines and watch history repeat itself. Whether it be rallying to end genocide in Darfur or lobbying for better health care in Zimbabwe, I want to make an impact. Sympathy and forgiveness are integral to progress, and while Judaism may form the moral force that has shaped my life, it has not limited me. Instead, it has taught me to keep things in perspective, stay open minded and work to find a solution, because, in the end, we are all human.
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