At Stony Brook University Hillel, the First Annual Fran Zak Israel Love Fest encouraged students from across the campus to submit multimedia pieces expressing their personal love and relationship to Israel. The November event bridged the passions of a donor, the commitment of the Hillel’s professional staff, and the remarkable passions and talents of a vibrant student community.
The program had significant impact in that it successfully engaged student leaders as well as unaffiliated students on the periphery of Jewish Life at Stony Brook University. The Israel Love Fest is a model of how Israel can be utilized as a positive tool of engagement, empowerment and unification of the student community. The first-place submission was written by Stony Brook student Irina Gorelik, whose essay is reprinted in full below.
See all of the entries here.
Israel: The True Meaning of Family, Unity and Love
These three photos, taken on two of my post-Taglit-Birthright Israel trips to Israel, epitomize what in my eyes, is the true beauty of Israel. This first photo was taken in Sderot in June of 2011. It shows a menorah built out of rockets- those that were fired into the city day after day that year, and this past year, hundreds were fired in the span of a single day. Although many nations would not wish to present these with pride, I find that this captures the way Israel takes something so harmful, deadly and full of anger and turns it into a symbol of miracles and light. The people of Israel, especially in Sderot, experience these missiles so often that one would think they would move to a safer city or relocate their families. In contrast to this belief, many find that the citizens of Sderot and other cities that are directly facing the Gaza strip are the most patriotic and feel an unsurpassed sensation of unity. This is definitely unique to Israel, since most Western nations, like that of our own, learn to protect and fear for their own safety prior to that of others. The bomb shelters have become part of the culture of the city- they are not sad and depressing, but are instead covered with art and self-expression of the citizens. This only reaffirms why despite all the political issues and tension that constantly plague this nation, it remains to be on lists of the happiest nations in the world due to the ability of the citizens to stick together in times of hardship and provide a sense of optimism that helps everyone get through.
The second photo is a similar example of the unity, patriotism and love that Israel represents. Taken in a city called Hebron, this is an image of children playing and laughing in a place surrounded by frightening gates and objects imprinted with bullet shots. This city is mostly inhabited by Palestinians, but it nonetheless holds a very high place in the history of the Jewish people as it is home to the tombs of Rachel and Jacob. The Jews living in Hebron that I was able to meet had no fear- they found the city to be a major part of their identities and allowed their children to play on the streets and explore. Every member of that community knows each other very well and became an extended family as they all look out for each other at all times. While this may seem dangerous, it only further proves the exceptional nature of Israelis- they stay true to what they believe in and do not allow any physical turmoil or territorial boundaries to interfere with their connection to spirituality as well as their quality of life.
The third image does not only capture the beauty of Israel as a nation, but it also depicts the unique value that Israelis- and Jews as a whole place on family, neighbors and building a community. The picture on the left side is of a little boy my friends and I had the pleasure of meeting in Tzfat- one of the most holy and spiritually connected cities in Israel. While enjoying delicious falafel and shawarma in an outdoor seating area, the boy comes up to the table we were sitting at, smiling at us. After getting over the initial “he is so cute” phase of the interaction, we noticed that he was pointing to our flavored water drink (best drink in Israel), and expressing that he is thirsty. After purchasing a bottle from the local shawarma joint and seeing the bright smile on his face, we became a little worried. Where were his parents? Why was a toddler walking around the town on his own? We approached the friendly vendor from the shawarma place and asked him if he knew where the parents of this little boy were. Although this moment happened over a year from now, I will never forget how humbling it was to hear him say, “His family lives a few minutes away. It is okay- don’t worry! We are one big family here- we all watch after him.”
As Americans who grew up in New York, letting a two year old child roam the town is not only unheard of, but would result in suspected child neglect. Instead, the child was completely healthy, happy and just a few minutes after his interaction, his older brother passed by us on a bicycle waving to his little brother. As we instantly fell in love with this extremely social and not to mention, bilingual toddler, we walked past his home a few minutes later where his mother came outside and explained that in their town, it was completely safe to let their children outside on their own since members of the community are treated like extended family and take it upon themselves to watch over all the children. To me, meeting this child changed the way I viewed Israel. Growing up in an urban setting where everyone was always rushing for their individual purposes without stopping to observe the people and places around them, seeing such unity and interconnection within a community made me truly understand what it means to be part of something larger than what we consider our immediate family.
This theme of unity, interconnection and care that the citizens of Israel have for each other and their land is unsurpassed in any other nation. It really explains why Jews, although small in number and spread throughout the world, always come back to this one incredible country and experience this inexplicable magnetism that captures their heart and soul and keeps them returning…and it is this same magnetism that will always keep me coming back.