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How Israel Changed Me and My Heart Forever

How Israel Changed Me and My Heart Forever

Israeli children

I am a dreamer; tradition and faith are an important part of who I am. Going to Israel was a dream I’d had for as long as I can remember. I had always planned to travel there with my grandfather, who loved Judaism with all his heart and soul. In fact, my love for Judaism and the Jewish people, as well as my thirst to obtain a Jewish education came straight from his heart to my own.

I often wonder how is it possible to have such deep loyalty to a place I have experienced only through photographs, stories, and images in my mind? How is it possible to connect to and love something I have never seen or touched? How could I fully understand how the Israeli people live their lives and go about their days? How could I understand in my heart why support of Israel, especially now, is so crucial? My children are getting old enough to take advantage of incredible Birthright programs, but until recently, I had never visited or seen my Jewish home with my own eyes.

Two years ago, I was selected to participate as a fellow in the Sheva- Covenant Early Childhood Directors Institute, an initiative to bring together emerging learners and leaders from the JCC’s early childhood education community for study, discussion, and relationship building. The Sheva program includes study of seven core values, and core value number seven is “Israel as the Story of the Jewish People.”  

Before I knew it, my dream became reality and I was off to Israel!

When we arrived, before we experienced anything, Mark Horowitz, vice president and director of the Sheva Center told our group, “Your job is to generate questions.” I became a sponge, soaking it all in by seeing, tasting, touching, smelling, and hearing as much as I possibly could. Together with my cohort – 22 people I love, trust, and consider family – I laughed, cried, complained, and sometimes got so excited it was as though I was a small child instead of a teacher of small children. Feeling the unconditional love and trust of the others in my cohort, I experienced Israel in a richer and more vivid way.

Visiting the Old City and the Kotel (Western Wall), I experienced Jerusalem in a way that was so meaningful to me. As others prayed at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I also saw Jerusalem as central to other major religions. We visited Kibbutz Kfar Abba and the “Path to Peace,” a mosaic at the Netiv Ha’asara community, both located on the border of Gaza. Throughout our travels, places and things such as kibbutz, Kotel, Old City, shuk (marketplace), desert, Hanukkah, and Shabbat came to life in ways I never imagined possible.

Throughout our travels, we spoke with children, parents, educators, professionals, and rabbis, and I came to love the Israelis. They are ordinary people living extraordinary lives, filled with deep commitment to family and religious beliefs, as well as pride in their country and its history. The people told us they feel safe and wouldn’t live anywhere else, demonstrating the love for Israel they carry in their hearts and souls. I, too, felt at home, safe, and secure – and in awe of the country’s diverse people, culture, history, and magnificent landscapes. My heart was so full of stuff to bring back to my family, my classroom, and my synagogue.

Back home, I realized how little I had known about Israel, even though I had been teaching young children about its culture, history, and foods every day. The images I had carried in my head are gone, replaced by all the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of my meaningful, life-changing experience. I realized, too, that I didn’t have anything tangible to give to the people I love, my colleagues, or my faith community. I had only myself, and I am forever changed.

I am hopeful that these changes will radiate through me, helping to shape my work with children, as an education professional, and as a leader. Like my grandfather, who traveled home to Israel in my heart, my time there, too, will live in my heart forever.

Holly Krakow is the incoming president of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, IL. She is a curriculum specialist and lead teacher for JCC Chicago and a participant in the Chicago Early Engagement Leadership Initiative (CEELI), a URJ community of practice. Holly holds an M.Ed. in special education from National Louis University. She lives with her husband and three children in Highland Park, IL.

Holly Krakow
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