In 1972, at the age of 26, my father traveled to Israel to meet his father for the first time in his life.

Thirty years earlier, my grandfather had met my grandmother while in a concentration camp in Germany. Though separated later during their confinement, they managed to find one another after their liberation and married.

While settled in Germany after their release, they were once again separated after my grandfather was accused of selling civilian clothes to a Russian soldier and sentenced to 10 years in a Siberian prison.

After giving birth to my father and aunt, my grandmother, lonely, scared and helpless moved to America to be with her sister, never to see her husband again.

After living in political exile in Siberia for nine years after his jail sentence, my grandfather immediately moved to Israel, following the tens of thousands of refugees and Holocaust survivors that migrated to a land where Jews were not only safe and secure but accepted.

The idea of moving to America to be with his wife and children was probably something my grandfather pondered and agonized over for a great period of time. However, the realization of individual freedom and tranquility was something my grandfather, a lifetime recipient of unconscionable hate and intolerance, was unable to pass up. Israel was the only country in the world that offered my grandfather the ability to be truly comfortable with his Jewish identity.

My father visited Israel twice, living with his own father for a grand total of three months. There they were able to work, talk and live without the threat of violence or anti-Semitism. There they were allowed to share their personal histories and memories without the threat of censorship. There they were allowed to share tears of joy, anger and sadness without the threat of a whip.

With all of this in mind, I was fortunate enough to visit Israel for the first time this past winter break. While many friends and peers were incredulous as to how I could voluntarily and willingly travel to a “war-zone,” a series of personal questions I had concerning my own identity needed to be answered. I was positive that the only way I would receive sufficient and satisfactory answers to these pressing questions would be to visit the birthplace and home of my Jewish identity.

Raised in an extremely secular household, my connection to Israel was almost entirely void of religiosity or spirituality. Rather for my family and I, it represented a place where the Jewish ethnicity, race and culture could flourish and prosper without the threat of persecution. It was a Jewish country for a Jewish people who had been maligned, murdered and massacred for thousands of years simply because of their identity.

Upon stepping off the plane, I saw Jews from Ethiopia, the United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa and the United States living, praying and communicating together as Jews. Though they may have retained certain integral parts of their past homes and culture, they all spoke the language of the Jewish people, celebrated the same Jewish holidays and shared a distinct history and way of life.

I was able to witness this first-hand after our group received seven soldiers while in Jerusalem. One soldier had a father from South Africa and a mother from England who had met in Israel. Another soldier’s grandparents immigrated to Israel after surviving the Holocaust in Germany. Though many of these soldiers were from entirely different backgrounds, they were all distinctly Israeli and Jewish.

Through talking and traveling with the soldiers I learned of their dedication, sacrifice and honor in defending Israel and what it represents. All were proud to have served and viewed their mandatory service as necessary in protecting Israel from threats of terror and violence. Hearing them speak of their service, I had to remind myself repeatedly that all of them were my age or one-to-two years older, sacrificing their lives so that Jews would always have a place to come in times of great need.

After talking to the 39 other Wisconsin students who largely made my trip so memorable and enjoyable and the seven Israeli soldiers we spent time with, personal questions regarding my Jewish identity didn’t seem so abstract or esoteric as they had before I left. Of the things that I did learn, perhaps the most important was that Judaism is not just a religion; it is a culture and ethnicity with distinct customs, idiosyncrasies and crazy families. Without question, Israel, with all of its trials and tribulations, remains the only place where Judaism and Jewish culture flourished thousands of years ago and continues to this day.

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