I will never forget my first visit to Israel in June 2012. I was very excited, nervous and uncertain. At last I would experience how it feels to have a place where you belong, a place that is intended for you and your people. Would it live up to my expectations? Would I feel the instant connection?
I was not disappointed. I felt a sense of belonging, a sense of heritage stretching back thousands of years.
Shabbat at the Kotel was an experience that will stay in my heart forever. I was a tiny part of the combined prayers offered up by thousands of Jews every Friday night at the Kotel. The atmosphere was incredible as we joined in unity to sing the Shema. Jerusalem was buzzing with the Shabbat feeling at this deeply spiritual place. I pressed my hands against the cold, softened stone like so many Jews before me. It was an unforgettable moment and it was really special to join with so many Jews in such a religious place to herald in Shabbat.
Before my visit to Yad Vashem, I had mixed feelings about how I would cope. I didn’t know whether it would be historical or emotional. As a matter of fact, it was both. The scale and horror of the Holocaust was brought home through the simple, yet powerful display of thousands of shoes that once were worn by our ancestors in Auschwitz. This really shocked and upset me because I could build an image of the different people who may have owned the shoes. The room that affected me the most was a room dedicated especially to the 1.5 million children who died in the Holocaust. When I stepped in, I was surrounded by mirrors. Five candles in the centre were reflected millions of times to represent these young, innocent, Jewish lives lost. I realised then how lucky I was to have my whole life ahead of me, when these childrens’ were snatched from them.
The museum was beautifully laid out. You began very deep underground, and as you progressed through the museum, you continued to walk upwards until the very end, where you step out onto the balcony and you could see Jerusalem stretched out before you. It was as if I was making Aliyah – going up to the Holy Land.
Every morning, it was wonderful to sing Modeh Ani in Israel. This prayer is all about thanking Hashem for waking us up in the morning and returning our souls to our bodies. There is the idea that we wake up blind, deaf, and unable to walk, and Hashem gives us all of these things as a gift, and that is why we say Modeh Ani. One thing I want to take out of my first visit to Israel is to say Modeh Ani every morning, because I never want to take anything for granted ever again.