I grew up dreaming of the land of Israel. My family is both proudly Jewish and proudly American; we were raised to believe that America was the home where we lived, but that Israel was the place we could truly feel at home. I longed for an opportunity to visit and hopefully spend time living here.
But this idealistic view was shattered for me when, for the first time in my life, I was denied service and thrown out of a pizza shop in central Jerusalem, just for being who I am.
It was a late Friday afternoon in early August, and I was walking with three fellow rabbinical students from the Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion. We had arrived one month earlier to spend a year studying in Jerusalem, in preparation for becoming Reform rabbis back in North America. This particular day, we were celebrating the LGBTQ+ Pride weekend in Jerusalem. That morning, I had put on a tank top that my sister bought for me as a going away present. It was a white shirt with “Cincy,” the nickname of my beloved hometown, spelled out in rainbow letters.
After entering the pizza shop, an employee greeted us and handed out menus. Immediately after looking at my shirt, his demeanor shifted. He asked me if I was gay. After responding in the affirmative, he simply said, “Get out.” He proceeded to repeat that phrase as we stammered stunned responses, and another imposing employee followed us up the street until we were down the block.
Once this shock settled an hour later, I felt like my dream of Israel had shattered. How could the only place where I am supposed to truly belong deny me service and chase me out into the street?
Growing up in America in a Reform Jewish household, we dreamed of Israel as a place where everyone is family and where we would always be welcomed with open arms. We took multiple trips to the country, tasting the magic of this land and aching to go back. I led over 250 North American Jews on Birthright trips, working to help them to deeply love and care about Israel like I did.
This incident alone didn’t shatter my dream of Israel, but the cracks had been forming in the month leading up to pride weekend.
A day earlier, I watched the city of Jerusalem go on lockdown to allow the Pride Parade to march through. While it was inspiring to see thousands march in the streets, it saddened me to know that soldiers had to stand outside each apartment building we passed, keeping the residents inside and away from us. At one hotel in particular, the guests, trapped inside the lobby, stared at us through the window like we were zoo animals.
Days later, I was told by a mob of Haredi men and children that I was a piece of excrement while standing in the plaza of the Western Wall. We were shoved and mocked as “not real Jews” as we stood peacefully in support of my female classmates as they davened on the women’s side of the Wall with Women of the Wall. . The Israeli police, who I thought I knew would always keep me safe, stood by and watched as people chased us, blew whistles an inch from our faces and kicked and pulled at my female classmates. I had never been treated so poorly by anyone in my life before this particular morning. Tears streamed down my face, the kind that fall when your brother’s insult cuts deep.
While in Israel, I’ve been laughed at by cab drivers for studying to become a Reform Rabbi, questioned by secular Israelis for going near religion and stared at on Shabbat for wearing my kippah while talking on a cell phone. My female classmates have been mocked for wearing kippot. Another was kneed in the stomach after stopping to check directions on her phone when she was lost in Mea Shearim on Shabbat.
Even if I could manage to blend in, I’ve been mocked in restaurants for being from America. Visiting as a child, I felt so loved as an American here — but something has shifted.
These cracks grew thicker amidst the backdrop of an Israeli government that contradicts all of my values. From the Nation-State Law and ban on surrogacy for gay men, to the arrest of a Conservative Rabbi for officiating a wedding, to an American journalist’s detainment at Ben Gurion Airport, whose subsequent op-ed shed light on the unjust airport security procedures in place.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the continued mistreatment of minorities in Israel, on both sides of the Green line, had already shaken the dream’s foundation (and admittedly, make my grievances as a privileged, American Jew seem beyond petty).
My time living in Israel has had some bright spots. The past few months have allowed me to experience the beauty of Jerusalem’s neighborhoods, feel the rhythm of the Jewish calendar, taste wonderful food and celebrate summer in a variety of culture festivals around the city. In one festival in particular, Mekudeshet, we went on a guided run through many of Jerusalem’s neighborhoods to see the beauty of what it is and dream of what this land could be.
Yet, as I sweep up the scattered pieces of the Israel I dreamed of, I can’t help but think of the perplexed cry of North American Jewish leaders:
“Why aren’t Millennials connecting with Israel, even while so many go on Birthright trips? Why is the distance growing wider between Americans and Israelis? Why aren’t Americans giving unconditional support to Israel anymore?”
As I take a deep dive into my Rabbinic studies, I set the shattered dream aside and re-imagine what 21st century Jewish life in the United States can be. In the Diaspora, I find hope, excitement and inspiration amongst my 52 classmates.
As I reflect on my dream of Israel, on that slice of pizza I couldn’t get and on being mocked by my people over and over, I can’t help but wonder:
Am I welcome in my dream anymore?