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My Open Heart is Leading Me on an Unending Journey

My Open Heart is Leading Me on an Unending Journey

Flat black stones placed on the sand to form an open heart

In 2016, I arrived at URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI), a Reform Jewish summer camp, knowing nothing about Reform Judaism. By the time I returned to Israel, I had been transformed by my experience and I was eager to continue my journey.

I began by looking for a place to study Judaism. I knew I wanted to do it my way – in an environment that wouldn’t intimidate me, but would challenge me by allowing me to grow as I figured out my place in the Jewish world. Having been raised as a secular Israeli, I had, after my army duty, experienced briefly the National Orthodox movement through a boyfriend who was deeply involved in that world. This experience helped me begin my religious journey. Then, I went to OSRUI and discovered Reform Judaism – yet another way to be Jewish. I found something of interest in each of these three directions, but I also had a lot of questions. I realized, that no matter where I turned, I would find someone who would show me Judaism through their eyes. I needed to find a Judaism that I could see with my own eyes.

So, I looked for a place to study Judaism in the most neutral manner, ending up at Ein Prat, an Israeli midrasha (institute for study) for secular and religious Jews, with men and women studying Judaism in a pluralistic fashion. I was surprised to find among the other students many with a similar experience – sh’lichim (emissaries) from a variety of American summer camps who returned to Israel also searching for a way to maintain the process that they began in America. There, I recognized my desire to be a sh’licha, like a reflex. For instance, someone who became one of my closest friends grew up in Efrat as an Orthodox Jew, but after learning about the Reform experience from me, she became intrigued and today worships at a Reform congregation in Jerusalem. Along with another sh’liach, who was in a Reform camp in Boston, I sang Birkat HaMazon, the blessing after meals, to the non-Reform Jews among us, which led to fascinating conversations about what we discovered in Reform Judaism. Suddenly, Israelis who grew up without knowing anything about Reform Judaism were intrigued.

This past summer, I returned to OSRUI as rosh mishlachat, the head of the Israeli delegation, overseeing 30 Israelis between the ages of 19-25, who were general counselors and specialists. I was also in charge of Israeli programming at camp.

A big difference for me between the two summers was that last summer I was getting to know the Reform Movement as a stranger. This summer, I returned as someone who had made a conscious decision to be there as a Reform Jew. I could teach and focus the sh’lichim on Reform Judaism, just as I needed that focus a year ago, all of which made me realize that I had found a true home in the Reform Movement.

During 2017, I worked with rabbis and educators who opened my mind and showed me how many good people we have in the Reform Movement, people with vision who are doing amazing work, one more awe-inspiring than the next. I watched as the new sh’lichim went through a process like the one I went through the summer before – arriving at camp with antagonism and disrespect toward religion and ending up at a place of respect and engagement.

Now, I am beginning my studies at Hebrew University, and I am curious to see where this path will lead me. But I am not leaving the world of s’hlichut; I will continue working at the Jewish Agency, winnowing out a new cohort of sh’lichim for next summer.

As I do this work, I continually ask myself numerous questions: How can we leverage the amazing reality that hundreds of other sh’lichim and I are exposed to in North America each year and return it to Israel? How can we build on the tremendous passion of sh’lichim who experience summer camp in North America and then return to Israel? How can we raise up this energy instead of letting it fade? How can we maintain the activism and enthusiasm we had at summer camp so that all of us can be part of a vibrant Reform Jewish future in Israel?

There is a Hebrew saying I learned during my first year at camp and now is always in my heart: “Let my feet lead me to the place that my heart loves. Open my heart to love the place that my feet go.” This is the journey I am on, an unexpected one for sure, but I can’t wait to see where my open heart leads me.

Ella Steiner, a sabra, is a student at Hebrew University.

Ella Steiner
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