The phrase, “L’Chaim” in Hebrew has new meaning for me after being in Israel on the NYL trip this year. It is a phrase we use when we are celebrating something new, a time of the week, an experience, a life-cycle event, or just a drink with friends. The NYL trip brought this phrase to the forefront for me over the past week, with “life” being present in everything from going ATV-ing in the Carmel Mountains to visiting Mt. Herzl to see memorials of soldiers who were taken from us too soon, and the moving experience of Yad Vashem and hearing a survivor tell her story of life and survival.

I challenged myself to be present in the moment while in Israel and not get caught up in what was happening at home or on Facebook, or wi-fi, and to live in the now. I felt alive when I laughed w/ peers and cried with them, immersed myself in mud and Dead Sea salt, and smelled the freshly caught fish in the Jerusalem shuk. I was able to take in the beautiful aroma of Shabbat as we walked through the old city, and feel alive when I reached my hands out to touch the Kotel and pray. I felt alive when I tasted the foods I love so much in Israel that I long for when I am not there, and I was able to take my experiences and live them fully. One of our speakers, Colonel Miri Eisin shared, “it is not the souvenirs we bring back to the states that carry the weight, but the memories we make that do not weigh down our suitcases.” They are forever etched in our minds and empower us to take action upon returning from Israel.

Another speaker we heard from discussed how making Aliyah brought hope back to her life. She told the story of how her immigration from the Ukraine came earlier than expected due to unrest in that region, and how she has since made Israel her home. This story of life goes to show that each one of us can call Israel home. We always have a place to turn that will be HAPPY to accept us for who we are, and help us in whatever way possible.

While some of these experiences were not the most “comfortable” or “traditional” ways to celebrate life, the reminder about resilience in Israel and in the Jewish people brings out the sense of life. They are a country united by overcoming challenges and looking out for each other and the greater good. With the death of the Israeli children and the recent escalation of violence between Israel and Gaza, it is important to remember that there are people fighting for our freedom and safety so we can continue to call Israel our home and visit the country so rich with our heritage.

L’Chaim was especially important for me during Shabbat in Jerusalem because it forced me to reflect on and be thankful for the journey I have taken since last being in Israel. It gave me a sense of renewed energy for what I will bring to my Federation work at home. Looking up from the group song session and seeing the Yeshiva boys join in with us as we welcomed the Sabbath with our “resident Rabbi” made me feel alive, connected, and proud to be Jewish. It reminded me of the common bond we all share with Israel, and the reasons I donate to Federation including to see our people continue to flourish and grow in their land.

I also had a personal “life” moment ascending Masada’s “snake path” in the intense desert heat. It has been a bucket list item of mine since I visited Israel for the very first time in 1996, and I have never felt more alive than I did through the sweat and tears it took me to accomplish this goal. It made me realize the historical aspect of this site and others throughout the country and brought the resilience and perseverance of the Jews to the forefront. It helped me connect with the challenges people face everyday living in Israel and made every minute of the journey worth the climb to the top!

The JFNA site visit to Susan’s House was also a “life” spectacle. A social action initiative developed to help reintegrate troubled youth successfully back into society provides hope and a future for not only the participants in the program, but also the next generation in Israel. This organization hit home for me because of my career, and I was pleased to see and hear success stories from this agency. The funding they receive from Jewish Federation and the JDC help make it possible to bring renewal to those in need through psychological and therapeutic services, and “soft-skills” or life-skills that will help them achieve success. The art they create as part of the program is priceless, and is made even more beautiful by the love that goes into it.

While these are just a few of the moments I chose to share, every minute of this trip was meaningful in some way. I visited sites I have been to numerous times re-experienced the sights and sounds of familiarity while accepting the challenge of being present and learning in sites that were new to me. Solidifying that my efforts and dollars spent with Federation in the United States are put to good use at home and abroad, helped me to learn three things from this experience: live life, be inspired, and take action.