Home in Jerusalem

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Home in Jerusalem by Sophie Ungerleider - Photo by Alex Garrow

Coming from a small town in Mid-Michigan, I am a part of a tiny Jewish community. My town is filled with somewhere around 40 churches, and the closest synagogue is a 30-minute drive away. Summer camp is by far the biggest Jewish community I am a part of, and it is an incredible feeling knowing that I get to go back to each year.

The drastic changes in scenery two summers ago taught me more than I had ever known about the history of oppression that Jews faced, purely for being Jewish. Rather than the normal rolling green hills of Kunkletown, Pennsylvania, I experienced the harrowing sights at Auschwitz followed by the peaceful hills in Jerusalem flooded with pristine architecture. Learning about the persecution of Jews in Europe and immediately after going to Israel painted the picture of what our ancestors had lived through. Israel was the safe haven that they came home to after the horrific events of the Holocaust.

For me, coming to Jerusalem brought this painting to life. Being “home” here in Jerusalem was a foreign feeling that left me speechless. Going somewhere for the first time and calling it your home isn’t a very normal occurrence, but here it felt exactly right. Being in Jerusalem with my best friends who have become family, in a place where the Jewish people have thrived is what made this place feel like home to me. This left me with the revelation that the sense of home I find in camp doesn’t come from Color War or swimming in the lake, but instead from the community of Jews all over the world that connect through their shared identity. Jerusalem brought a new sense of what this expandable sense of home means to me. Its history is a large part of the significance behind what being a part of a Jewish community means, and that is why it felt like home.

The night before our group visited the Kotel (Western Wall), our counselors warned us that because we are Reform Jews, we may be questioned about the purpose of our visit. This made me a little anxious. The next day, as we walked into the area of the Western Wall, all of my nerves immediately melted away. Although I have problems with how the Wall is run in certain aspects, I made my Kotel experience something personal, while still acknowledging my own Jewish values. Standing at the bottom, looking up at the towering wall and touching the uneven yet smooth stone, it became overwhelmingly clear to me that no matter what synagogue I go to, how many times I go to services each year, or the way I do or don’t follow the Jewish laws, it makes no difference in my heart or mind that I am Jewish.

I am Jewish because I believe that no matter what race, sex, religion, or beliefs define you, you deserve to be accepted. I am Jewish because I know the world will be a better place when we learn to understand each other and spread love to people different than ourselves. Finally, I am a Jew because coming to a community of Jewish teens each summer reminds me of my own values and the importance of being my honest self no matter who I’m around or where I’m from.

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Sophie Ungerleider is a senior at H.H. Dow High School in Midland, Michigan. She is on the varsity pom pom team and manages social media for her school's newspaper. She is passionate about social justice and activism and she spends her summers at URJ Camp Harlam.
Accompanying photo: “Jerusalem” by Alex Garrow