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I remember as a child feeling jealous as other kids inherited their uncle’s baseball card collections, while my dad tried to figure out how American football worked. Having moved to Seattle from South Africa as a child, the idea of “home” was always an enigma. My early years carried a certain nostalgia for the places we had left, a curiosity for the stories and histories of where we had been — South Africa, Eastern Europe. And as a Jew, Israel, of course, was always on the list.

Being an immigrant also bred an appreciation and admiration for what America sets out to be — a home for the tired, the poor. But that model society wasn’t built on a clean slate.

While in college in Southern California, I volunteered with a group working on the Navajo (Diné) Reservation in northeast Arizona supporting families trying to maintain their tradition and live on the land — as opposed to selling it off to vying coal companies. One day, when some young people on the rez were giving me directions, I noticed how they used features of the landscape as reference points: a certain tree, a dried well, an outcropping of rocks. My equivalent would be, “go north on 10th Ave till you reach Broadway, and then take a left on Harvard.” I was blown away by their connection with place, their land. As a Jew, I wondered about Israel, our land. What happens to the “People of the Book” when we return to our land? What would a land-based Judaism look like?

My semester abroad was at hand, and instead of flying to Zimbabwe or Nepal, I decided that before I go out and meet another culture, I’d better check in at “home.”

I arrived at Sde Eliyahu, a religious kibbutz famous for its organic farming, which was spearheaded by a legendary man with a gigantic smile named Mario Levi. After emigrating from Italy in the 1930s, Mario became a founder of the organic farming movement in Israel. Getting to work in his vegetable field, having my hands held in his grip, was a blessing. He planted me in this land.

I joined the kibbutz ulpan (Hebrew language program) and met Jews of all ages and sizes from Ukraine, Uruguay, Mexico, Serbia, Ethiopia, France, and beyond — all of us somehow “home.” On one hot day in the fields, Marla, a volunteer from Uruguay, handed me a pomegranate on her way to the orchards. Standing beneath the shadowed hills of Gilboa, I felt a need to give thanks. I wasn’t “religious,” but I knew the traditional blessing: Baruch Ata…borei pri ha’eitz. Tears started rolling down my cheeks. How could I possibly put the depth of gratitude for it all into those words, standing again in our people’s land, with the language and tradition of my people on my lips?

Building my life in Israel has been powered by the sense of national home and our people’s story. On the one hand, it’s so simple. But in reality, this coming home places before us the biggest questions we face as a people. Within months of my arrival, the second intifada broke out, and the sense of home was reinforced by the battle for home.

As time went on, another side was revealed. Beneath the violence lay a real complexity: Our story of home is smack in the middle of another story of home. And today, instead of trying to fight the never-ending battle of denying someone else’s home, I’m the co-
director of Roots, an Israeli-Palestinian initiative that believes this land is home to both peoples. Our work focuses on local communities between Jerusalem and Hebron — building trust, creating partnerships, and working for our future. Can we build a house here? Draw a property line in the middle? Could we live and serve a deep sense of our people’s roots here alongside each other? I’ve come to believe that home is where the work before you is truly your work.

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