July marked the nine-year anniversary of the day I stepped off a plane in Israel and became a citizen of that country. What makes this “aliyaversary” (aliyah anniversary) unique is that it’s the first one that I haven’t spent in Israel. There’s no reason for this other than timing.
Being in your native country on the day you moved to another gets you thinking about where you began, and where you are now. For instance, a few months ago a former classmate of mine at Classical High School posted on Facebook about how Classical was ranked the most diverse school in Rhode Island. She went on to pose questions to other Classical alumni on Facebook, asking us to share our experiences with diversity at Classical, and if we felt that we just co-existed or were really integrated. The majority of those who posted publically said that they felt there was both diversity and inclusion at Classical: Diversity of race and religion, and a sense of inclusion for all who went there.
Based on my personal experiences, my response was one of the few that disagreed with the majority:
“As the only person who was an Orthodox Jew at Classical at that time, I didn’t feel integrated. I still had friends but didn’t feel part of the greater Classical community. Due to my strict observance of the Jewish Sabbath, I couldn’t participate in any clubs and sports that included Friday night and Saturday activities, or attend social events during that half of the weekend. I couldn’t even go out to a restaurant with people or eat at their homes due to my strict observance of Kosher laws. A big part of it was certainly that I was [quite shy] and had less self-confidence back in those days. Still, I certainly didn’t feel integrated as the only Orthodox Jew in the school. Perhaps integration is easier when you are not the only one of your kind that needs to break into the mold.”
Many of those who commented on the Facebook post agreed that college was a culture shock. Surprisingly, they found that integration was less popular than it was in the halls of Classical, and that various groups clung to those who were like them.
For me it was the opposite. I’ve always known that it was the lack of inclusion I felt in high school that strengthened and solidified my Jewish identity. Feeling mostly cut off from the Jewish world in high school made me yearn for and appreciate it more than ever. I was not the only Jewish student at Classical. Nonetheless, students and teachers questioned my observance since it contradicted what they had observed in many non-Orthodox Jewish students: attending school on Jewish holidays, eating non-Kosher food and participating in Saturday activities.
Following high school, I returned to full immersion in the Jewish world. It started with two years of study at a Yeshiva in Israel, and five years studying and working at Yeshiva University before my eventual aliyah (immigration) to Israel. While other Classical alumni apparently felt that they had lost the feeling of inclusion when they moved on to college I felt that I had finally found it. My inclusion came from being part of the school’s majority population, and not a lone wolf.
Feeling excluded from the integration at Classical is probably what pushed me further away from wanting to be part of that particular inclusion. As a result, it was in high school that I discovered my love of Israel. During my junior and senior years at Classical, I spent a total of four months in Israel on four different programs. Each time I returned from Israel to the halls of Classical, I felt an even stronger sense of inclusion – not with Classical but with Judaism. Each visit to Israel reaffirmed who I really was, and where I really belonged.
As I sit in my childhood bedroom in Providence writing this article, I see more clearly than ever how I came full circle from the halls of Classical to the streets of Jerusalem. Those four years at Classical helped me to realize that while Providence will always be where I’m from, Israel is where I’m meant to be. Israel has its own kind of diversity. Within its borders is the greatest diversity of Jews from different parts of the world, as well as different customs and beliefs. It’s in Israel that I, a Jew, am included in the world’s greatest Jewish diversity.
DANIEL STIEGLITZ (firstname.lastname@example.org), a Providence native, made aliyah in 2007. He holds a master’s degree in creative writing from Bar Ilan University, is a certified life coach, freelance content writer and lives in Jerusalem. He has had two short stories published in FictionMagazines.com publications.