I have to admit that Israel as an abstract concept does not mean very much to me. The idea of a land is something we are told so much about in school, but it is the part that is hardest to connect to. Israel for me has always been the place where my maternal grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins live. That is the Israel I visited for my grandfather’s 70th birthday and the place where he is buried. I was inspired to join Project Israel for the chance to win tickets to visit this land and my family who I almost never see without a screen between us.
Last year I entered with the same hope and came in fourth place. This year, armed with experience I was determined to try again. I must admit that after fourteen years of Jewish education, getting through the first few question stages only took a brief review of the information booklets.
The first big challenge for me was the creative stage—an art piece to represent Israel. But what did Israel really mean to me? And I realized that Israel didn’t mean just one thing. It couldn’t mean just one thing. Israel means something different to every person. There are a multitude of “Israels,” each contained within individual heads and hearts; but while I could conceptualize this idea I had no idea how to express it. It seemed, to borrow a word from philosophy class, ineffable.
And it is here where I fell back to the abstract, with new eyes. I took the symbol of a Magen David—the most generic symbol for Israel—and I recreated it with mixed medium. Using blue paint, pipe cleaner, ribbon, and even a bingo dabber, I tried to express how something that seems so simple and clear cut can only seem that way from a distance: an abstract Israel, an abstract Magen David. But once you look closely you are forced to see all the different materials, all the diverse people that combine into the big picture. This is what Israel has and will always be.
It was when the reality of competing in front of the whole school finally hit me that I began to really study, memorizing what felt like a thousand pages. This is when I learned that Israel is, quite literally a place where history lies around on the ground. Take, for example, Jerusalem and the City of David, where the walls were built and rebuilt by Jews throughout the ages, dating back to the biblical King Chizkiyahu.
It is by living alongside the ancient that we prevent the distance that is so common in academic study. As a country filled with both the modern and the antiquated, the Jewish state is perhaps the most poignant metaphor for Judaism itself. We take a tradition that dates back thousands of years and keep the fundamentals, the values and the holy book. Then we apply it to our own lives in big ways and in small ways. With every high holiday and every penny given to tzedakah, we are asserting a connection to something far greater than ourselves.
And at the end of the day this is why I entered Project Israel–for the chance to discover my very own Land of Israel.