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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2018 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved.


 

September 7, 2018  RSS feed
Federation

Text: T T T

I love Israel

Aliza Norstein

Column writer Aliza Norstein, her husband, Keith Norstein and Jordyn Schwersky, all of Pinellas County, attended the national Young Leadership summer mission to Israel, sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America. The three earned their trip by serving for the past year as Federation Fellows volunteering their time for various projects of the Jewish Federation of Pinellas and Pasco Counties.

I love Israel. I always have. Maybe it’s because much of my family lives there. Maybe it’s because I feel comfortable surrounded by other Jews. Maybe it’s because I’m not the minority with the odd name and even odder eating habits. Maybe it’s because I feel a spiritual connection to the Jewish ancestral homeland. I can’t nail down one reason why I love Israel so much because there are too many reasons to love such a magical and historic place.


Aliza and Keith Norstein in Jaffa overlooking Tel Aviv Aliza and Keith Norstein in Jaffa overlooking Tel Aviv Zionism is part of the fabric of who I am as a person. Israel provided a home to my father and his family after fleeing Morocco. My parents met and fell in love in Israel. I asked my parents to make me an Israeli citizen when I was in elementary school. I wanted the comfort of knowing that I’d have a home if the US ever failed to protect me as a Jew. The trauma of what our people have experienced is like a ghost, an ever-lurking presence reminding you of your “otherness.” It was hard on me to have such an understanding of that hate at a young age but I also think it led me down the path I’m on today, working for Israel Bonds and being an active member of our Jewish community.

Being selected as Federation Fellows for the Jewish Federation of Pinellas and Pasco Counties was a dream come true for me and my husband, Keith. We’d get to see family. I’d get to show Keith some of the places I didn’t get to show him on his first visit. We’d have some amazing experiences with the new friends we would meet. While all of those things happened and were amazing, what I didn’t realize was how much this trip would affect us.


(L-R) Luy Teitelroit, representing the Tampa Jewish Federation; and Pinellas- Pasco Fed Fellows Keith Norstein, Jordyn Schwersky and Aliza Norstein enjoying a glass of wine in Jerusalem overlooking the Western Wall. (L-R) Luy Teitelroit, representing the Tampa Jewish Federation; and Pinellas- Pasco Fed Fellows Keith Norstein, Jordyn Schwersky and Aliza Norstein enjoying a glass of wine in Jerusalem overlooking the Western Wall. Seeing Israel through eyes of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) was a revelation. Steven Spielberg himself wouldn’t be able to capture the magnitude of the JFNA’s impact on the lives of people in Israel. We picked apples for the hungry with Project Leket. Keith almost passed out from the heat and I was picking cactus needles out of my legs for days but it felt good to get our hands dirty to help others. We visited Independence Hall where the state of Israel was established in 1948. We rafted down the Jordan River.

We learned about iRep, Israel’s Religious Expression Platform, a new JFNA initiative that encourages respect for diverse expressions of Judaism in Israel such as in the area of marriage and divorce, which is currently controlled by Israel’s Orthodox rabbinate. IRep is trying to change the laws to reflect the desires of 75 percent of Israel’s population to expand the legally recognized options for marriage and divorce.

We played wheelchair basketball with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and did a blind exercise to better understand the needs of people living with disabilities. We learned about the Youth Futures Program where troubled kids get mentors to help them through rough times.

We learned about Israel’s Operation Good Neighbor from Lt. Col. Moreno and how Israel has been providing humanitarian aid to Syrians fleeing the Syrian civil war. We visited the border of Syria on the Golan Heights. We heard from Dr. Yotam Dagan, a psychologist working to help soldiers reintegrate into life outside of the armed forces.

We played games with children from the Ethiopian National Project. Ethiopian Jews have preserved their Jewish identities for over 2,500 years completely closed off from the rest of the world. Many of the adults brought to Israel from Ethiopia were farmers so their children struggled in school so the ENP was created to help those children fulfill their potential.

Having those experiences and seeing first hand what the Federation is doing made me realize how grateful and proud I am to be a part of our Jewish community and our Jewish Federation. It also made me eager for more.

Cultivating so many new friendships from around the U.S. was something that I had hoped for but didn’t expect over such a short period of time. Boy was I wrong. We were able to create real bonds with people because of the meaningful experiences we were sharing. Keith and I made friends with other young Jewish professionals from as far away as California to as close as Tampa.

While exploring Jerusalem one day we witnessed such a perfect rebuttal to the BS we’re always hearings about Israel in the news. We were standing on a bus that was completely full when a young Muslim woman in a hijab walked on with a squirming infant in her arms. Immediately an older religious Jewish man wearing a yarmulke and tzitzits stood up and offered his seat to her. She looked at him gratefully and said Shukran which means “Thank You” in Arabic (thanks to Fauda for teaching me basic Arabic.). I wish I had captured it on film because it was such a perfect representation of the Israel that I know and love.

Watching my husband fall in love with Israel was my favorite part of the trip. He’s always loved my passion for all things Israel and Jewish but I know that he never quite understood it. Keith and I have visited 20 different countries together so he couldn’t grasp why Israel was always my favorite. The first time he went to Israel he was terrified because of the way Israel is reported in the news. At the time Jerusalem was dirty and there was garbage and graffiti everywhere. We later found out that necessary funding was going toward preparations for the 2008 Gaza war later that year. Seeing people walk around with large automatic weapons was jarring to him, understandably so. The National Young Leadership JFNA Summer Mission was his second time in Israel and I could tell right away that things were different. He started to learn basic Hebrew phrases. He got comfortable. He took thousands of photos. He knew where we were more often than I did. He asked me to take a photo of him with every shawarma he ate. He immersed himself into Israeli life as if he had been doing it for years. I left the US with a pro-Israel husband; I came home with a Zionist.

I am grateful and proud to have represented our communities at this year’s Summer Mission to Israel as a Federation Fellow. It was an experience Keith and I will never forget. Just this past week Keith said to me “I could do that mission trip to Israel every year.” I can’t describe how much joy it brings me to hear him say that. Hopefully we’ll see all of you “Next Year In Jerusalem.”


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