For the past year, I have written a monthly column for the Atlanta Jewish Times, similar to what you read here. After the conflict began a few weeks ago, I was asked to write a “letter from Israel” to be published in the coming days. My letter appears below. If you believe that visiting Israel is important, I invite you to forward it.
Do you remember me? I lived in your fine city just a few years ago. When I arrived, you were still “HOTlanta” and anybody who was anybody hung out at Rose ‘n Crown Friday night. Times have changed, huh? I recently moved to Jerusalem after living in Tel Aviv for two years. Sometimes I run into some nice Atlantans who come here for a visit. In fact, just last month, I unexpectedly and literally walked right into a group of Atlanta men in Jerusalem studying Torah for a week.
So why am I nervous? If you think it’s because of the images you’re seeing on the television, think again. I’m nervous because I know what happens when things heat up in this part of the world. CNN goes nuts, ratings go through the roof, and Jews stop visiting Israel.
To many of you who have been here before, what I’m about to write will sound familiar. To those of you who have not, you will probably not believe what you’re about to read. (drum roll…) Ready? Being in Israel is as safe as being in America. Seriously. No, seriously. If you need a few minutes to think it over, I’ll understand. (pause) Back? Ok, let’s talk about it.
Life in Israel is not what you see on the news. Since the war broke out in Gaza a few weeks ago, the cameras could have filmed me and numerous other Israelis hitting the late-night bars or eating a delicious Israeli salad at an outdoor café, but it probably wouldn’t have glued viewers to their seats. People say that Israelis are a resilient people who quickly move on after adversity but that’s not the whole story. For most people around the country, during conflicts like this, when we’re talking about day-to-day life, there IS no adversity. While we take very seriously what goes on in Gaza, it’s going on IN GAZA. Our hearts ache for residents of the affected nearby areas and we worry about the reservists and soldiers serving there right now, but for those of us who live elsewhere, it’s business as usual. We go to school, work, the movies, the mall.
When deciding whether or not to visit Israel, people ask themselves the question: “So just how likely is the risk of encountering danger?” Well, we all know its history – Israel must be a dangerous war zone, right? So just how great is the risk? Maybe not as great as you think. According to social psychologists, the availability heuristic is a phenomenon in which people base their prediction of the frequency of an event or the proportion within a population based on how easily an example can be brought to mind. We all remember the grisly bus bombings of the mid-90s and early 2000s, right? You’d be a fool to ride a bus in Israel, right? The last bus bombing occurred in mid-2004. The next time you’re driving on the Downtown Connector at 70 mph chatting on your cell phone with your favorite radio show on, you might want to consider how much danger you’re in. Certainly a lot more than you think. But nobody tunes into the news to watch car crashes and it’s too easy to not change bad habits because “bad things only happen to other people”. Thank goodness for the Israeli bus system; how else would I get to work?
If an alien were to come to planet earth and watch the U.S. news for a day with the daily acts of random violence in the mall, schools, or on Black Friday, I suspect he might think twice about stepping foot in America. Meanwhile, Israel is blessed to have an incredibly low rate of street crime, with women and children able to walk home late at night in most neighborhoods.
Some of you aren’t convinced. “It can’t be….I just can’t believe Israel isn’t dangerous.” Anyone who’s followed the news over the last 5-10 years has learned, sadly, that it’s a dangerous world out there. London, New York, Mumbai, Columbine….tragedy can strike anywhere. But even if you remain convinced that there IS a greater risk of danger in Israel, you should still come visit. I’ll tell you why: when we make decisions in life, we do so by weighing risk vs. reward. There’s a lot of reward to drive a car on the highway to work so we put up with the risk (or minimize it in our heads). Who has the time to take public transportation? Could I convince anyone to visit South Central Los Angeles and hang out with the Crips and the Bloods? Unless you’re seeing some hidden reward, probably not.
So what’s the reward of visiting Israel? Where to begin? If your Jewish identity means anything at all, I suspect you might find a visit to Israel anywhere between quite interesting and life-changing. Don’t take it from me; take it from the millions of Jews who have made a visit to the Jewish state in their lifetime and have returned home having experienced a feeling and connection to their Judaism like never before. Ever felt a connection to G-d when celebrating Shabbat at the Kotel (Western Wall)? Felt Jewish peoplehood by volunteering at an absorption center with Russian or Ethiopian immigrants? Been able to keep kosher at a certified kosher McDonalds? Gotten off the treadmill at the neighborhood gym to light Chanukah candles along with everyone else around you? These are special moments in life, which warm our hearts and connect us to our Judaism in a way that cannot be recreated anywhere else in the world. And if you haven’t been to Israel…trust those who have. It’s that special.
But there’s even more to it – there’s a risk to not visiting Israel. Rabbis and Jewish leaders stress one thing more than any other for the continuation of the Jewish people: education. While the importance of Jewish education at home cannot be overstated, a visit to Israel provides a seminal moment in the development of a Jewish soul. Parents, when your children go off to college and begin to make adult choices as to what kind of Jewish life they plan to lead, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. They draw from past experiences, memories, and lessons. Some of their most powerful ones will take place in Israel. A visit to Israel on a group program as a teen or young adult can be one of the most rewarding and life-changing experiences in one’s life.
Years ago, after an hour-long dispute with a friend who had never been to Israel, I finally realized that no statistics or reasoning could convince him to visit. The images we get from the media are simply too strong for many to overcome. Most first-time or even repeat visitors return home thinking, “Wow, this hardly resembles what I imagined. I just can’t believe how safe I felt.” I implore anyone who has ever echoed this sentiment to voice it to anyone around you, Jewish or not, who is considering or questioning a possible trip to Israel. It helps the economy, it makes a statement to our fellow Jews in Israel and to the world around us, and it strengthens our connections to our Jewish identities in a way that simply cannot be achieved in our home countries.
And if that’s not worth taking a stand for, what is?
Thanks for reading and say hello to the Waffle House for me.