“Why would you ever choose Jerusalem over Tel Aviv?” a representative asked me at McGill’s meeting for students studying abroad at Israeli universities. At the time, I had no response. I had never even considered Tel Aviv University. The representative proceeded to tell me how much more fun Tel Aviv was than Jerusalem, and how it was a “city that never sleeps, a city where the party never ends.” But, after being here in Israel for five months, I know that when I am in Tel Aviv I can forget I am in Israel; but when I am in Jerusalem, I never forget where I am.
My experiences at Hebrew University and living in Jerusalem have both confused and solidified my Jewish identity. The first time I came to Israel with my family in 2004, I landed in Ben Gurion Airport, expecting to feel something, but I did not. Israel is a beautiful country, but to my 13-year-old self it was no more special to me than any other place I had visited.
This past January I arrived in Jerusalem, a city that I have spent very little time in the past. For the first few weeks, I felt complete culture shock. Being a Jew from Toronto I could not help but feel out of place in the sea of Orthodoxy that can encapsulate Jerusalem. Yet as the weeks passed, I started to really enjoy living in Jerusalem. As a Canadian who loves waiting in lines and appreciates order, I soon became accustomed to the bustling shuk and the benefits of chaos. Yet, even though I experienced a greater appreciation for the country, I still did not feel more connected to my Jewish identity.
All that changed for me on March 23rd, 2011 at 3:00 when I received frantic phone calls from friends asking if I was okay; a bomb had exploded near the central bus station. Two days later I was supposed to run the 10 km race for Jerusalem’s first-ever marathon and I had heard rumours that it would be canceled. The mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat stated in response to the rumours that ”when terror attempts to disrupt our way of life, the best solution is to get back to normal as quickly as possible. Events in Jerusalem will not be cancelled and Jerusalem will not stop running.”
As planned, my friends and I headed to Gan Sacher, the starting area of the race, on March 25th. As I ran down the streets of Jerusalem, next to the Knesset, up Ben Yehuda, through the Old City, and across the finish line, I felt a sense of pride. I felt proud of the country and proud to be Jewish for the first time since I have been in Israel. This must be the feeling, I thought, that people speak of when they speak of their connection to Israel. Lining the streets of the race were people of all denominations and from all places. Only two days after the bombing, everyone came to cheer the runners on to show their pride and support for Jerusalem. It did not matter if I was secular, religious or something else. The Jerusalem people cheered and supported me. I was cheered for and supported by the inhabitants of Jerusalem.
I may not have this feeling everyday when I wake up in Jerusalem and I may not feel it for long, but if I can remember my recent experience then I will remember what it means to be Jewish in Israel. As I start counting down the days to my return home to Toronto I catch myself thinking about how my relationship to Israel has changed and what my connection will be upon my return home. I may not always agree with Israel’s policies and I may not always enjoy being cut in line, but I suspect that Israel will always be an important piece of my Jewish identity.