“What Israel Means to Me” by Lily Caplan

Lily wrote the essay for the JCC Maccabi Games, which Rockland is hosting in August. I really do think the subhead or alternate head should really be “What Reuben Gittelman HDS Gave to Me.” She won first place and received an Israel Bond for her effort.

What Israel Means to Me
by Lily Caplan

One of the first memories I have from attending Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School is of my kindergarten “trip” to Israel. Of course we never actually left the country, or Rockland County, or even our classroom. Instead of bringing us to Israel our teachers brought Israel to us. Building blocks were set up so we could “climb” Masada; we made a wall out of cardboard boxes as our Western Wall; and we had inflatable pools outside so we could snorkel in Eilat. For a bunch of five year olds, it was really exciting, and since I still remember it today it had a lasting impact on my life.

That trip instilled in my kindergarten class, and in me, a sense that going to Israel was an extremely important thing for us to do as Jews. When they told us that when we were eighth graders, we would visit the Holy Land for real, I couldn’t believe it. So I waited eight more years as patiently as I could for it to be my turn to go to Eretz Israel. Then finally when that day came and we had landed at Ben Gurion Airport, I looked out of the tiny airplane window and thought to myself, “I’m here, I’m finally in my homeland.”

I spent two weeks traveling Israel and seeing all the amazing things the country has to offer. I actually got to climb Masada, pray at the Western Wall, and snorkel in the blue waters of Eilat. It was one of the best experiences of my life, something that I will never forget. I was surrounded by my people and I knew that I belonged there. When our group was walking to shul on Shabbat morning, seeing others around us doing the same, it made me feel so much at home.

On the last day of the trip our tour guide told us something that will always stay with me. He said, “Now that you have been to Israel once, you must come back. Israel is not just a place you visit, it’s your home now.” I knew then that Israel would be a part of me and that I will keep going back there for as long as I can.

I’ll be in Israel again this summer for four weeks, traveling and learning more about my homeland and my people. I knew it when I was five and pretended to build a kotel, snorkel in Eilat and climb a block Masada. I knew then that I am a part of “Am Yisrael” (the people of Israel) and that Israel will always have a place in my heart.