When people ask me, "How was your trip to Israel?" I tell them it was the most amazing and life-changing 10 days of my life. Which is confusing for some people to hear, coming from a 26-year-old Philadelphia suburbanite. But it is the truth.
The experience was all encompassing. We were 38 potential young Jewish leaders from Philadelphia, selected to participate in the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Israel360 Mission.
For 10 days together, we felt the diverse, religious pulse of the country, ranging from ultra-Orthodox to secular to "I'm just Jewish." And that's OK with me.
We heard speakers like the former head of Hillel International, Avraham Infeld, who helped us to expand our own concept of what it means to be Jewish. We helped prepare meals for young soldiers stationed near Gaza. I can still smell the tamarind spice we put in the food.
But it was the intangibles -- what I learned about Jewish culture, religion and my own Jewish identity -- these were the experience that I will treasure.
Visiting Israel changed my perspective on what it means to be Jewish. An Israeli is a Jewish citizen, they don't have to try to be Jewish, or to conform to what others (non-Jews) think a Jew should be. They just are.
But an American Jew is a citizen who happens to be Jewish, sometimes conforming or playing the role others put us in. This mindset has had a profound effect on how I see myself as a Jew here.
I grew up Jewish but never really felt Jewish. My family had a strong Jewish feeling and I had a Bar Mitzvah, but I lived in a predominantly non-Jewish area. I hid my "Jewdism" away, being very careful who I took it out for. I never felt like I had a Jewish identity and, truthfully, never knew there was such a thing.
Now, I want to be more like the Israeli; I want to wear my Jewishness like a badge of honor. Not flaunting it obnoxiously but showing people this is who I am and I'm proud of it.
Another thing I learned about myself in Israel is that I'm a Zionist. Before Israel, I thought Judaism was all about religion, studying the Torah and marrying a Jewish girl. Now I learn about this thing called Zionism. The belief that Jews have the right to defend themselves. The belief that Jews deserve a place in this world. The belief that any Jew -- no matter your color, nationality, socio-economic status, education level or playlist preference -- has a home in the Jewish state of Israel.
The funny part about this whole Zionism thing is that after you start believing in Zionism, the spiritual pieces to the religious puzzle seem to fit together with greater ease. For example, we celebrated Shabbat in Tel Aviv on the eighth night of our trip. By this time I began to have strong convictions about Zionism and because of these feelings of belongingness, the Shabbat service was beautiful and powerful. It was unlike any I had ever experienced (the three-piece band helped, too.) I felt religious in my own way.
When you're in a place founded by the blood, sweat and tears of Jews, their is no hiding who you are. It's a place where everyone you meet is Jewish, you don't have to ask them in a hushed voice if you're part of the tribe.
It is the common link that binds everyone in the country. When I first realized this, it was like I had been holding my breath for 26 years and had finally come up for air. The relief, the clarity. It is the most beautiful feeling imaginable. It's OK to be Jewish, its OK to be me.
Galen Newman teaches at the Hardy Williams Campus of Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia and coaches swimming and water polo for Springfeild Aquatic Club in Montgomery County.