Eliana Dunn fell in love with Israel on her Birthright trip earlier this year.
Eliana Dunn fell in love with Israel on her Birthright trip earlier this year.

At 18, I signed up for Birthright; at 19, Israel will be home

On July 24, my 19th birthday, I will make aliyah. Whatever kind of teenager you picture when you hear that sentence, it’s probably not me.

I grew up in a liberal, secular family in Pacifica. To me, being Jewish meant not celebrating Christmas, not buying Easter candy and getting looks of sympathy when my biology teacher talked about Tay-Sachs (I calmly explained that I didn’t have the disease). I had little understanding of what being Jewish meant outside of the occasional synagogue service.

Israel was something that interested me, but it was only mentioned by people around me in a political context. In early 2017, I took a course in Middle Eastern studies at a Bay Area community college. On the first day of class we listened to a singer perform songs with lyrics like, “And Gaza turned gray from the ashes of apartheid, they don’t care they’re killing children, ’cause they’re on the devil’s side,” before claiming that Christians and Muslims in the Middle East didn’t fight until the Jews came. Virtually everyone I knew was anti-Israel, and by vocally questioning their opinions, I felt like I was alienating myself.

Yet I couldn’t stop myself from questioning what I heard about Israel, so when I turned 18, I signed up for Birthright. I desperately wanted to understand the country that I was expected to support, but there was also a part of me that would have gone to Antarctica if it were a hub for a young, vibrant Jewish culture and community. I knew a 10-day tour wouldn’t give me an in-depth look at the intricacies of Israeli politics, yet I met people from across the political spectrum who were willing to share their experiences and engage in intense debates. I had the opportunity to extend my trip and see more of Israel from outside a tour bus. I visited my second cousin and her family in Jerusalem for the first time. They graciously welcomed me into their home, and I experienced the richness and diversity of life in a Modern Orthodox neighborhood.

I loved the country I was seeing, but I knew I couldn’t fully understand Israel without learning Hebrew, so I found an Ulpan (immersive Hebrew language program) on a kibbutz up north. On Friday mornings I would take a bus back to Jerusalem with soldiers my age and scramble to do my Hebrew homework before sundown. When I was walking to my bus one night, an Israeli stopped me and tried to sell me English lessons. Once I interrupted he apologized, saying, “Sorry, you looked really Israeli,” and I beamed with pride at the feeling of belonging in a country that had begun to feel like home.

My feeling of home went past any physical resemblance to Israelis. It was realizing before Passover that everyone around me would be celebrating the holiday. It was standing in silence on Yom HaShoah and grieving over the Holocaust with my community. It was asking the cashier at an electronics store how to conjugate litzchok (to laugh) for my Hebrew homework, and within minutes seeing the entire store cheering me on.

I had planned to spend a few months in Israel, come back to the Bay Area, and transfer colleges this coming fall, resuming my old life. But I cried for most of my 15-hour flight home, distraught at leaving this unbelievable place where I discovered the richness of Jewish culture and where my life had meaning beyond all words. I tried to envision the next few years of my life at UC Berkeley, an opportunity I’d tortured myself to achieve, but every part of me wanted to go back home.

So, I’m making a crazy decision and moving back to Israel this month thanks to help from Nefesh B’Nefesh, an agency that offers resources on aliyah. I have an incredible team of advisers helping me. My Nefesh B’Nefesh counselor, Roni, has been with me through every step of the process; she’s taken the time to get to know me and recommend programs that she knows are a good fit. I’ve had a caring employment adviser, Shlomit, who’s always been available to help, and soon I’ll have an army adviser.

When I move to Israel I’ll be attending another Ulpan and preparing for army service. My goal is to work one day in media relations for Israel. I hope to help people from my community see that Israel is a diverse, vibrant and incredible country full of generous and loving people.

Since its founding in 2002, Nefesh B’Nefesh, in cooperation with Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth Le’Israel and JNF-USA, has facilitated the aliyah of over 55,000 North Americans to Israel.

Eliana Dunn
Eliana Dunn

Eliana Dunn grew up in Pacifica and is making aliyah on July 24, 2018.