As my El Al flight touched down on June 18 in Tel Aviv, I knew that I was entering into a world completely unknown. I had no idea what to expect as I had never been to Israel before and knew none of the other 169 students participating on the Alexander Muss high school program. In spite of the early butterflies, as the bus pulled into the Muss campus in Hod Hasharon, I knew this was going to be the start of something truly spectacular.
I had studied about the Holy Land for years in Jewish day school and never in my wildest dreams did I think I was going to be spending my summer in Israel. In just six weeks, previously new friends became like family. We climbed the golden brown rocks of Masada together, swam in the warm waters of the Kinneret and Red Sea, and danced in Tel Aviv on “White Night” (an all-night party), all while studying the history of our people and heritage. Muss stresses the “living classroom” technique. For example, we learned about King Saul on Monday and hiked through the battlefield of Mount Gilboa the next day, where Saul died in battle.
Muss gives its students freedom to experience three home hospitality weekends where students can spend Shabbat with their Israeli family or friends, which I have had the pleasure of spending with my family in Jerusalem. I can confidently say Muss changed my life and the six weeks I spent in Israel was the best six weeks I have ever had.
Being in the Holy Land never truly hit me until one Friday night at the Western Wall in late June. My grandfather has told me numerous times about Friday nights at the Western Wall, but no description could have prepared me for what happened. Tens of thousands of Jews from all backgrounds and ethnicities sang and danced to prayers and niggunim, Hebrew for melodies. As I sang and danced with Jews from all around the world, the feeling of Judaism hit my friends and me with such force that many of us suddenly began crying in happiness. We all thought, “This is it. This is what Israel and Judaism is about. This feeling proves Judaism's emphasis on community, connection and unity."
That night took a more solemn turn when thousands of Jews united in prayer as the sky turned dark for the safe return of Gilad, Eyal and Naftali, also known to all of Israel as “our boys.” I was stunned by the level of unity and hope thousands of Jews displayed that night, praying for the safe return of our boys, and I realized that if three Americans were kidnapped, Americans may unite together, but not nearly the way Israel did.
Never did I think that the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers would lead to an all-out war between Israel and Hamas. Being there during that time was a surreal experience.
The situation became tense on the night of July 8. Our madrichim (counselors) sat us down as they did every night at 10 p.m. for a meeting in the dorm; however, this meeting was different. They informed us of the escalation between Israel and Hamas, and how increasing barrages of Hamas rockets were being fired toward Israel.
My madrich, Inon, assured us that in his 25 years of living near Hod Hasharon in central Israel, never once had there been a siren signaling a rocket from Hamas. Fifteen minutes later, the unthinkable happened. Missile sirens blared in Hod Hasharon, and 170 students from the three different dorms ran to the bomb shelter. The scene was chaotic. However, we soon became accustomed to the situation, as we had to deal with Hamas rockets and sirens often — a total of nine times during my stay in Israel. We were all given a sense of security that the Iron Dome would protect us and shoot down Hamas rockets aimed at civilian areas.
About 20 teens were forced by their parents to return home, and many of them put up a long, tear-filled fight to stay in the Holy Land. My mom and grandparents also wanted me to come home, but I successfully refused, telling them that I did not just want to stay, but I needed to stay in the Jewish state. If I left, Hamas would be successful in instilling fear in Israelis — and ruining my summer. In addition, I also chose to stay because whereas I had to deal with the sirens for just six weeks, my numerous relatives living in Israel need to deal with missile sirens and terrorist threats much more often.
It was at that moment on July 8 in the bomb shelter when I decided that I want to serve in the Israel Defense Forces one day to defend and protect my homeland. The Israeli-Gaza conflict strengthened the already impressive unity of Israelis to an entirely new level.
My time at the Muss program has taught me to do more than just be a vocal pro-Israel supporter. This program has cemented my deep sense of Jewish identity — both cultural and religious — and has changed my life so much that it is now my dream to one day live in the Jewish state and become a dual citizen.
Max Newman of Blue Bell is a rising senior at Abington Friends School and a member of Chabad of Montgomery County.