by Jessica Hochstadt, Career 12

I am standing here in front of you, and I have to admit, I am nervous. It’s not the public speaking part that gets me, but what comes after this- ending Career, and leaving Israel. I have to laugh at myself for a minute, because I remember having a very similar feeling a few weeks before I started this program- ending my career, and leaving for Israel.  Before I ask myself what comes next, I’d like to go back five months and take a look at our Israel Experience.

When we first arrived at Beit Yehuda hostel, I remember thinking to myself… what have I done? Itzik told me he was my angel; little did I know how true that statement would be. There were people from America, and those from Brasil, England, Australia, Canada, Uruguay, Russia, Italy, and Belgium. Some of us had finished graduate school, others had yet to start college. We came from entrepreneurial backgrounds, scientific studies, musical talents, and undecided futures. I thought to myself… we could not be more different. And now I know that I could not be more incorrect.

Why did we come here? I think it’s safe to assume that two things brought us together on Career Israel. Firstly, we all have a place in this country. They say Israel is our home, and dammit, we wanted to find out what that meant. What does it mean to live in Israel? What does it mean to work in Israel? To shower in Israel (well friends, that means squeegeeing up your dirty bath water to physically drain the filth that you just washed off your body.) What does it mean to wake up speaking Hebrew? To order a drink speaking Hebrew, and meet new friends speaking Hebrew? To get lost speaking Hebrew and then find your way, speaking Hebrew? (I got lost on Maze Street once. “Maze” also translates into “what’s this?” I asked the first person who walked by, “What’s this street?” And he said, “Correct.” I replied, “Correct street?” He answered, “No, what’s this street.” I continued with, “That’s what I want to know. What’s this street.” He yelled at me and told me, “Correct!” I was fuming, until I realized the Abbot and Costello scene that had played out.) So, we wanted to know all these things and more.

The second thing that brought us to Career Israel is something that is a bit more difficult to admit. I think we were all a little bit lost. Some of us had no idea where we were going in life. Some of us knew where we wanted to be, but had very little insight on how to get there. Some of us knew we were searching for something, but what that something remained a mystery. Some of us had no idea we were lost, until we found ourselves… in Israel.

Before I came to Career Israel, my life was in a shambles. Every month my boss would tell me that funding was running out, and my job would end soon. I was looking for new opportunities every day but was told that I needed more experience. What I really thought I needed was a break.

At this point in my life, I was also exploring Judaism a bit more. I began reading the Torah every day, praying in the mornings and evenings, and yes… wearing a skirt and long sleeves. The Jessica as you know her, was on a complete hiatus. I went as far as to apply to a seminary in Israel, but was denied because the rabbi told me I was not Jewish. My mother converted before she married my father through the Conservative movement. And this rabbi had the nerve to non-chalantly tell me that I was not the person I thought I was, even though I had spent 10 years learning in an Orthodox private school.

I know I am not the only one among us who has heard this before. I know you can sympathize when you imagine how I cried that day. I had spent my entire life devoted to a faith, a G-d, who didn’t want me. I was told I had a home in the Holy Land because of my beliefs, and now that home was taken away from me.

I wiped my tears and said, with all due respect, Rabbi- you’re wrong, I’m Jewish. And I’m going to find a way to get to Israel. And it’s going to help my work issue by building my resume. And I’m going to explore this religion and country that supposedly don’t want me, because I am Jewish. Enter Career Israel.

The work issue was resolved through the help of Career Israel staff. They found me not one, but two internships. I met with leaders in the hi-tech and innovation world. I was able to gain the writing experience that I so wanted. I was published in the Jerusalem Post and was even asked to write about my trials and tribulations with Israeli dating. When that turned out to be a riot, my bosses asked me to continue writing about Israeli men. My. Pleasure.

I also visited an Ethiopian city for Shabbat. This was like nothing I had ever experienced before. They pray at 5am, wear only white, and then eat a big authentic meat meal at 9am. They do not offer their guests water, because that is rude, but alcohol instead. And they always always always fill your glass to the tippy top. Even after you take one sip, they refill for you. So, Yael and I were downing beer and wine (the appropriate drink for guests) from 9am to 12:30pm. Needless to say, we were hammered. And in my drunken stupor, I knew that this group understood that they were Jewish, even though many rabbis would disagree with their customs.

I learned that there are many ways to be Jewish. Wearing a skirt or kippah doesn’t make you Jewish. Going to synagogue doesn’t make you Jewish. Living in Israel doesn’t make you Jewish. I learned that I can’t tell you what makes you Jewish. No one can tell you what makes you Jewish. But I know what makes me Jewish- my belief. And no one can take that away from me.

I also used this time to understand Israel and its role in the world. Can we be a Jewish state and a democracy? Should we fight for a single country, or promote a two-state solution? Should we evacuate entire cities to give back land for peace? I don’t know the answers to these questions. But while I was here, I made it my business to learn.

In the States, as a Jew, co-workers, friends, and neighbors constantly ask me about Israel. They read about the IDF’s role in one-sided newspapers, and ask me how I can possibly support such activities. I never had a response for them, until now. Now, I will tell them- How dare you question a country’s legitimacy. First of all, pick up a book and read about the history of Israel. Learn about the UN’s decision to return this land to the Jews. Learn about how we have peace programs and the only army with an education unit. Look at the sacrifices we make among our own people to return land, and criminals, in the hopes for peace. After all this, like myself, and like the Israelis who live here… you probably won’t have a perfect answer to your questions about the country.

So next, buy a plane ticket and come to Israel. Meet the people. Speak to the families who work several jobs just to stay afloat. Stand in a line at a bar on Sunday night and ask the young adults about how they work hard during the day, so that they can enjoy their free time at night. Go on a hike, ask the people you meet along the way if they know where the nearest bomb shelter is. They’ll say no, because you cannot constantly live in fear. You will meet wonderful people here. People who are happy amidst tragedy. You will leave Israel, possibly more confused than you were when you got here. What is the answer? What is the solution to the problems Israel faces? Perhaps there is no solution yet, but learning about the country and eliminating ignorance is certainly a step in the right direction.

So before Career Israel, before exploring the answers to these questions, yes, I was lost. And I don’t think I am the only one. We are all a lot more similar than previously imagined. And our time together has only made us closer to one another. We share something now that no one in our respective homes can begin to understand. And even if we all stay in Israel, leaving Career is going to be harder than we thought.

I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all fallen in love here, in one way or another. We fell in love with our jobs. We fell in love with Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. We fell in love with night life, and we fell in love with Bograshov beach. We fell in love with Israelis, and some of us fell in love with one another. We fell in love with Itzik and Mara, mostly because of the love that they showed each and every one of us.

And we’ve all learned quite a bit during our stay here. Obviously we’ve progressed some in our careers, and for this we are very thankful. But there are lessons we learned that could only have been taught in Israel, and only on Career Israel. For example, we now know that we can make four-course Shabbat dinners with nothing more than a hot plate and a kum-kum. You can get very far in Israel, with fairly little Hebrew, but some essential phrases include “Ma?” “slicha”,  “Ani lo mevin/a”, and of course, “lama lo?” If we really put our minds to it, and pack enough bandaids and meatstick, we can spend four days hiking from one coast to the next… and still make it to an incredible party by nightfall. Fact: Hummus goes with anything. A little Arak can fix any problem; too much Arak causes several new ones. A “dood shemesh” sounds funny, but is actually a huge thorn in our sides. And finally, there is such thing as too much falafel.

What does come after this? How are we supposed to leave, knowing there is a Kotel that cries for us to return? How can we ever watch another sunrise, without remembering the call to prayer in the Negev at 4 am? How will we ever compliment our neighbors’ flowers, knowing the intricate care and detail that has been put into the Bahai Gardens? What are we to do the next time we step onto a boat and aren’t given drum lessons? How can we ever relax in another ocean knowing there is a Dead Sea waiting to keep us afloat? What will keep us afloat now?

We’ll keep each other afloat, the way we have been doing for the past five months. To the staff of Career Israel, I must take this opportunity to thank you for picking this group for Career 12. Every single one of you , Career Israelites, is incredible. You’ve made these past five months fun, dramatic, and thought-provoking. You are intelligent. You are talented. You are caring, unique, and like no one I have ever met before. Where else can you walk down the hall and ask a friend to make a movie with you, then knock on the next door and ask about cooking techniques from a pro? When else will you have the opportunity to pick an architect’s brain before going to sleep at night, and then lay on the beach the next day with future doctors and a professional singer? You guys have made me laugh. You’ve pissed me off. In these past five months, you’ve been my therapists, my life coaches, and my friends.

We will be in touch, and we will visit when we can. We will remember what we learned on Career- that it’s okay to be uncertain. It’s okay to not know what you want. It’s okay to explore and discover. We aren’t lost. We are finding ourselves. And through this journey, we found each other.

During our first month, a clown came and spoke to us. It was Purim, and we were anxious to go out and celebrate. He told us that we couldn’t think out of the box, until we got out of the box. Thank you for being brave enough to leave your boxes, and enter this Israeli one with me. Guys, whatever we do, we’ll be okay. We have new skills, a new language, and of course, each other.

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