When I got on the plane and began my trip to Israel with NFTY, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. All I knew was that when I landed on the other side of the world, I was going to have a long, hard, and tiring journey ahead of me. And it was all of those things, but it was also much more than that.
When we first arrived in Israel, I knew next to nothing about the people I had traveled there with. My first experience getting to know any of them was when we started talking about — and eventually playing — soccer. Even though we were from opposite ends of the country, we still had at least one thing (other than being Jewish) in common: We loved soccer. Playing soccer allowed me to meet new people throughout my time in Israel, from a group of Germans to the Israeli teens who joined us and the little kids on a kibbutz who could just barely speak English. Soccer was everywhere.
A big part of the soccer mania everywhere was the World Cup, and even while in Israel, I tried to watch as many of the games as I could. One of the first games happened just as we were ending our first week of travel. We were staying in Jerusalem, and England was playing Colombia in the Round of 16. One of the kids in our group was a big England fan, prompting NFTY to root for England, and it just so happened that another youth group in the hostel was from Colombia. Both groups packed into the hostel lobby to watch the game. Every time England got the ball, NFTY would roar, only for the Colombian group to get up and cheer when Colombia stole the ball back. Our group’s triumphs and defeats continued well into the night as we watched England beat Colombia in penalty kicks, 4-3. That was one of the best nights in Israel, just getting to be with a group of people pulled closer together by a common goal.
Not all the soccer was happy. During a semifinal game, a big orange warning popped on the screen with some words in Hebrew. It flashed on and off 17 times. I know, because I counted it the second time it happened the next day. One of the Israelis turned to me and asked: “Do you see that flashing sign on the screen? That says there’s been a shooting in Gaza.”
The stark differences in our lives hit me. We were the same age, and we both loved soccer, yet our lives could not have been more different. In Israel, teens grow up knowing they’re going to go into the army. They grow up next to war zones. They grow up regularly going into bomb shelters. When we watch sports, we see breaking news saying the Chicago Cubs have scored a run. When Israelis watch sports, they see breaking news saying there’s been a shooting in Gaza, less than 50 miles from their hometown. I had never realized how much a daily part of life war was in Israel.
Israel was an amazing place to be in, and I loved every moment of it, from the Western Wall to Masada to the Dead Sea. But in 20 years, what I’ll probably remember most won’t be the places I visited or the things I saw, it will be what I learned. About Israel’s struggles. About how every person lives a different life. About what life in the Middle East is like. And about how simple things in life, like a game of soccer, can bring people from all around the world, from Colombia to America to Israel, together.