When I tell people I spent the last year of my life studying abroad in Israel (search), they usually look at me funny and respond politely.
When I tell them I'm planning to move there permanently in August, the flabbergasted look on their face demands an explanation.
I'm a 21-year-old student at NYU majoring in journalism. I have blonde hair and blue eyes and a boyfriend. I come from the average American family, and look like the average American girl. So why am I leaving the land of opportunity to live, permanently, in a land ravaged by war?
A rabbi once told me that when God took Abraham to Canaan (search) and showed him the land, promising it to Abraham's future generations, He also showed him every Jew that was ever to be born. The rabbi went on to explain that, according to the legend, when a Jew stands in the exact spot where thousands of years ago Abraham first beheld him, he becomes intimately and eternally bound to the land.
Like many Jews, I had been to this land, now called Israel, numerous times, to see the holy sights and visit the home of my forefathers. And while I felt a connection, and perhaps had the feeling of "coming home" that many Jews boast of, I never viewed the country as anything more than a place of religious and historical significance to visit every once in a while.
But two summers ago, when I visited Israel with my family, something was different. I suddenly felt a visceral need to identify with the people and the culture, and so I decided to spend a year abroad studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (search). The only explanation, albeit fantastical, that I can offer is that perhaps that summer I stood in the very place where Abraham first regarded me, so many years ago, and my soul anchored itself in the sacred soil.
I was overcome with the realization that there was a country whose land had been promised to me, where millions of my people lived, yet their lives were so different from mine. I wanted to see that land and that life, learn about it, be part of it.
I quickly became part of life in Israel. I got used to having my bag checked every time I went into a store or restaurant, I got used to seeing my Israeli soldier friends walking around with huge M-16s on their shoulders. I mastered haggling with the taxi drivers. Taxis, not buses — that was the rule my parents, and many of my friends' parents, issued before we left. With all the suicide bombings on buses, it just isn't worth the risk. And though I don't travel on buses, I'll admit I still feel frightened walking by a bus, or sitting at a red light in a taxi with a bus in the next lane. It's just too hard to get the television images of blown-up buses out of my head.
Two weeks after I arrived, I was lucky enough to land an internship at The Jerusalem Post, which was an invaluable opportunity for me as a young journalist. There, I was thrown right into the thick of things, with no choice but to learn quickly. On my very first day, I wrote an article that appeared in the newspaper, and while it wasn't front-page news, it was my debut into the world of journalism.
The internship was my first step into the "real world." The Post staff treated me like a full-fledged reporter, giving me assignments and deadlines and sending me around the country to gather information. It was great training, and it was often fun.
But, living in Jerusalem was also often very stressful.
I remember one night that was particularly nerve-racking. It was a Saturday night. My parents' plane had just taken off after a brief visit, and all my friends were on a weekend get-away hiking in the Golan. I was in my dorm at Hebrew University when I got a phone call from a friend in the Israeli army. He said he couldn't talk, but he wanted to warn me not to leave my dorm that night.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because we're on our way to Jerusalem right now to look for a terrorist who's on the loose, who according to intelligence is planning on blowing himself up in Jerusalem tonight."
I was terrified. I was all alone. I couldn't call my parents, and I was scared to leave my dorm. I had never before experienced such real fear and danger.
But in Israel, that sense of fear and danger is the norm. In Alaska, it's normal to wear snow boots all year round. In New York, that would be absurd. In Israel, the snow boots are simply bulletproof vests.
Life is about adjusting, and I'm still struggling with the adjustment.
When I told my best friend that I was going to Israel for a year, she couldn't believe it. She couldn't understand why I was going to spend a year of my life in a country filled with angry extremists who would jump at the chance to kill me.
She was correct in that what we see on TV is scary — images of the burned frames of blown-up buses or cafes, the Israeli military in the slums of the Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza.
But the majority of the cafes in Israel are modern, popular places where Israelis spend their evenings or lunch breaks, and many Palestinians are not the suffering, impoverished people we see on TV. Many live in mansions in developed Arab villages.
I explained all of this to my friend as best I could, but I didn't say what I was really thinking: Honestly, how safe is it to live anywhere these days? Today, terrorism is a global threat. How many New Yorkers were scared to go to work at the World Trade Center on that Tuesday morning in September 2001? But today, everybody is wary, everywhere in the world. The point is that we still go on living. Not just existing, but actually living. We can't live life scared to go around every corner, or none of us would ever leave the house.
It's no different in Israel. Living means putting the fear behind you.
Of course, managing the fear is a personal battle. On the one hand, no one wants to forget the 3-year-old child killed by a Palestinian rocket while he was walking to nursery school with his mother. On the other hand, we do want to forget. We want to move on and not dwell on all the sorrow and tragedy.
Yet while their survival requires Israelis to harden their hearts to the pain, to take a deep breath and push the grief out of their minds, doing so is slowly turning Israel into a very hardened country. I fear once I live there, I might harden with it; so while some may worry that I will lose my life, I worry more about losing my heart.
It is Israel's mostly futile effort to block out the pain of all the death that is causing them to lose the media war. The Palestinians bring the journalists and cameras into their homes, showcasing their anguish for the world.
Everyone can remember the last time they saw an Israeli bulldozer destroying a house, or an Israeli tank plowing through a Palestinian village. But rarely do we see the footage of the Israeli mothers, wives and children crying for lost relatives. We hear the names of the dead, but rarely do we see the victims who remain maimed and crippled. They do exist, but Israel avoids revealing its vulnerable side.
So instead, Israelis appear tough and military.
Oddly, once I arrived in Israel, I felt further from the war-torn country I was familiar with than when I was at home, watching suicide bombings and shootings on the news every day. There I was, living in what is technically considered East Jerusalem, and I was oblivious to the danger around me. Despite the terror, bombings and deaths, there is a living side to the country, and that's the Israel I became a part of.
And that's my answer to those who can't understand my decision to live in Israel, exactly what Israelis want the world to remember: People are actually living life there. It's not a third-world regime. It's not Afghanistan or Iraq. It's a modern democracy, just like the United States, trying to exterminate terrorism. The roads are paved, there are prestigious hospitals and universities and they even have The GAP and IKEA.
But none of that makes news, so we don’t see it — hence the flabbergasted looks when I say that after spending a year in Israel, I’m moving there permanently this summer.
So while perhaps it was my religious beliefs that led me to explore the country in the first place, it was the country itself, the people, the culture and the life, that kept me there.
Erica Chernofsky will graduate from NYU with a degree in journalism in January 2005, completing her last semester at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She was an intern with Foxnews.com this summer, and moved to Israel earlier this month.