Coming Into My Jewish Self in Israel

In April of my senior year in high school, I went to Poland and Israel on a two-week trip through the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center and BBYO called Shalhevet.

From January-May of my gap year, I traveled to Israel to live in Tel Aviv with a program called Aardvark Israel.

Both of these programs were generously supported by the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund’s Israel within Reach grant, and I cannot overstate how transformative and critical to the growth of my Jewish identity these two trips were.

Ilana (L) and a friend hiking in Bet Shemesh

The first time I went to Israel, I landed in the Ben Gurion airport at night, surrounded by my best friends. I squeezed the hand of my friend next to me as we finally descended into the land that I knew so much about; from hearing stories from my dad about growing up in Tzfat, teaching the students in my Sunday School class about Israel’s geographic makeup, and reading articles about life in Israel today.

During my gap semester in Israel, I learned, I explored, and I grew.

I took classes about the history of Zionism and classes in Hebrew. I challenged myself to order in Hebrew at restaurants, speak to the bus drivers in Hebrew, and engage my Israeli friends in conversation even when it was uncomfortable. I explored the whole country, meeting family in Givatayim, visiting my father's hometown of Tzfat and staying for a few nights with his neighbor, and spending weekends in Jerusalem observing Shabbat and experiencing a lifestyle so different from the one at home in California. I grew as a Jewish woman, expanding my mind through conversations about life in a settlement community with family friends in Rechasim, sharing my ideas in team meetings at my internship, and spending Shabbat at a traditional Orthodox synagogue, embracing the differences from the way I pray at my conservative temple at home.

Learning atop Masada

One Shabbat I found myself in Eilat, walking down the boardwalk with my friends as we ate, laughed, and talked. We were surrounded by lights, phones, and people driving and walking to bars and clubs, celebrating the weekend. The next Shabbat, however, I was in Jerusalem, walking to a Lone Soldier dinner with my friends, because the buses were no longer running. With our long skirts on and phones at home, we ventured out and enjoyed a night of eating, laughing, and talking – but this time, in an environment as distant from the one a week before as it could get. Just a short bus ride away were two entirely different worlds on a Friday night.

I felt a powerful duality of sameness and differences in Israel.

Walking down the street surrounded by hundreds of other Jews evoked feelings of belonging and community. Simultaneously, I became profoundly aware of the differences in what so many of those people think, believe, and how they practice their Judaism.

As I head now into the next four years of college and into my life beyond, I look forward to continuing my journey as a member of the Jewish community and the world. I am proud to be an advocate for Israel, for the Jewish people, and for myself, as I continue to navigate my role as a Jewish woman today.

An activity at sunset in Tel Aviv

Ilana Hamer is a past recipient of the Federation's Israel within Reach grant. This need-blind grant underwrites the cost of participating in Israel experiences for 8th graders (12-13 years old) to 26 year olds who live in our Federation service area. Learn More 

Recognizing the impact of Israel travel/experiences, the Federation also provides need-based scholarships for both short-term organized teen trips (first-time, grades 8-12) and 5-12 month Masa Israel-approved programs for young adults ages 18-26. Learn More

Categories: Israel, Overseas


October 16, 2018