Opinion: New York is home, but Israel has my heart

Tel Aviv, Israel, before the current war. Photo by Megan Naftali/Long Island Advocate

By Megan Naftali

My entire life, home has been New York, and family was my mom, uncle and grandparents. That was before I went to Israel for the first time in January of this year. I have family there, but I didn’t meet them until I was 14 years old, and I didn’t truly know them until now. I have always been proud to be Jewish, but I was the most American person you could meet. I was scared to go to Israel because I thought I would be judged for eating bacon cheeseburgers or going out on a Friday night. What surprised me the most was I related more to Israelis than other American Jews. In just 10 days I fell in love for the first time with a person, a place and the feeling of belonging. We had always spoken Hebrew at home. I love America for how diverse everyone is, but being in Israel surrounded by people who speak the same language and share the same culture, I felt something I’ve never felt before. 

Megan Naftali

Since my January trip, I have returned to Israel three times. I went back in March for spring break, in May for my mom’s funeral and in September for my cousin’s bar mitzvah. I flew back to New York on Friday, Oct. 6, the day before Hamas attacked Israel. If I had heard this news a year ago, I’m unsure I would have felt the same. After spending a total of two months in Israel since this year started, I developed friendships and grew close to my family there. I felt guilty for being in a safer place when people I care about were not. I felt as though I should be there to help support the people I love. I especially felt guilty for being in Israel for all the good times and not being there for the bad. Fortunately, everyone I know was unharmed physically, but they all know someone who was hurt, and that also does damage. 

The current war is a complex political issue, and everyone should become educated on it, but I am not commenting on it as a political issue. I am commenting on it as a human one. No innocent life should be harmed, whether it’s an Israeli life or a Palestinian life. What hurt the most after the Hamas attack, which was the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust, was seeing people celebrate innocent civilians who were brutally murdered, kidnapped and tortured. Regardless of your beliefs, celebrating violence is problematic. None of this is cause for celebration. 

The culture is very different in America than it is in Israel. New Yorkers, in my experience, tend to be closed off, rarely speaking to people we do not know. We live to work. It is our biggest priority and our largest struggle. In Israel, meanwhile, you can attend a random family’s Shabbat dinner, and suddenly you’re part of the family. Most importantly, Israelis know how to live. They have a lust for life, travel and adventure. My theory is they live life to the best of their abilities because tomorrow they may not have one. 

The Western Wall, in the Old City of Jerusalem, before the war. // Photo by Megan Naftali/Long Island Advocate

Americans who are of college age take their lives for granted. I should know, I was one of them. Our desires are self-involved. We think about our careers and fight for the lives that we want. Israelis around the same age fight for their country and for their lives. When Israeli soldiers told me about the difficult experiences they had in the army, I asked them if they wouldn’t have joined if they had a choice. Every single person said that they still would have joined the army. Through their words and expressions, you can feel the pride and love they have for their country.

Israelis live life to the best of their abilities because tomorrow they may not have one.

It’s a confusing feeling when the country you descend from and eventually want to move to is one of the most controversial places on the planet, but when I’m there, I don’t feel hate or anti-Semitism. When my mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, it felt like my life was ending. I was so angry and lost my faith. I thought that even if God does exist, I’m unsure I want to believe in something that took everything important away from me, but traveling to Israel changed my views and what I want out of life. When I’m there, I feel close to my mom. It is where she was born, and it is where she is buried. New York will always be my home, but Israel will always have my heart. 

This column reflects my personal experiences and is not intended in any way to take away from the experiences of people in Gaza. I have never been there, and I cannot speak on their behalf, but what I will say is that every day I wish we can all have a place we can call home that is not cause for outrage.