We’re marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel with a year-long celebration! Keep an eye out for “Memphis Celebrates Israel at 70” branding at your synagogue, at events around town, and online. In this My Israel Story series, we’re asking Memphians to tell their personal Israel stories. Do you have a story to tell?
As my foot tapped my March of the Living backpack and I fiddled with the name tag around my neck, the wheels of the plane hit the ground below us. A weight lifted off my shoulders and a grin spread across my face. We had touched down in Israel. I was home.
Last April, I participated in BBYO’s March of the Living, traveling to Poland and Israel to learn about the Holocaust and honor the future of the Jewish people. It is an indescribable feeling to realize that the camps you once saw printed in a textbook are living and breathing right in front of you. I do not know if I will ever be able to come to terms with what I witnessed; however, I do know that this trip has changed my life forever.
Marching out of Auschwitz to Birkenau on Yom HaShoah was a hauntingly beautiful experience. Holding hands with a diverse group of girls I had met only five days before, I cried as I walked out of the gates, the sign above us reading “Arbeit Macht Frei.”
I felt our horrific past walking with me, and was empowered to honor the lives of those murdered during the Holocaust, ensuring that nothing like that would ever happen again. I was angry, and wanted to shut the world out, but before I knew it, I heard a group of Argentinian Jews humming the melody of “Am Yisrael Chai.” Soon, voices from Brazil, Israel, New York, Maryland, Florida, and hundreds of other places filled the air as we celebrated Israel and the the Jewish people. Feelings of comfort and unity swam within me, and for the first time on the March, I felt like I belonged to something bigger: the universal Jewish people.
One week after Auschwitz, I found myself surrounded by the same group. This time, we marched through the Old City in Jerusalem, dancing and singing, celebrating the strength of our people and homeland. This time, as I held hands with the girls, I cried tears of joy and hope. I sang and waved my Israeli flag until my arms hurt. Our past marched with me again, yet this time, hope filled me. This will live within me forever, motivating me to celebrate my heritage and my homeland. The hope of Israel now lives within me.
I think back to touching down in Israel and that grin still spreads across my face, but now, I am also reminded of the smells of falafel in the Israeli market. I hear the voices from around the world harmonizing to “Am Yisrael Chai.” I feel the warm waters of the Dead Sea on my skin. I sense the unity of the Jewish people within me that I will carry forever. Israel now lives within me, and I will always be proud of that. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to go on this life changing experience, and I look forward to returning to my home in Israel again one day.
Danielle Chaum, the daughter of Ed Chaum and Patricia Shaw, is a 2017 graduate of St. Mary’s Episcopal School. Memphis Jewish Federation’s Lemsky Endowment Fund provided her with a Teen Israel Experience grant to help offset the costs of her BBYO program in Poland and Israel in Spring 2017. All rising juniors and seniors in the Memphis Jewish community are eligible for grants of up to $3000 to attend a recognized teen spring or summer program in Israel. Teen Israel Experience applications are available on our website.