These last few weeks have been one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I left the country for the first time and what made it even more special was the fact that I was in Israel. I got to tour the whole country and meet tons of Israelis and other Jewish athletes from across the globe; to cap it all off, we won the gold medal.
The last month has changed me and provided me with a chance to visit the country I had heard so many stories and great things about, and it didn't disappoint. From laying tefillin for the first time at the Western Wall, visiting the Dead Sea, and going to the markets in Tel Aviv, I got to experience almost everything Israel has to offer. Arriving in Israel and getting off the flight was an experience of its own, specifically seeing the country out of the plane window for the first time, and getting off the plane made it all finally real. Israel was no longer the place that I've only heard stories, seen pictures, or learned about. I was physically in Israel, where generations and generations of my Jewish ancestors had spent years trying to get there. One of the questions I was asked time after time was, "How did the trip change you." After thinking about it for a while, I came to an answer: It didn't. Instead of changing me, it amplified the feelings and beliefs I already had. I've always been pro-Israel and pro-Zionist, and I always will be. That's why I believe this trip didn't so much change me as confirm and amplify my thoughts and beliefs.
One of the things that surprised me the most in Israel was how much people loved Americans, especially the younger kids. One of the misconceptions I had about Israel and the rest of the world was that they all did not like Americans that much, and I was definitely wrong. Everywhere we went, people would come to talk to us and ask us all the questions they could possibly think of, and they were genuinely so excited to see us. One of my favorite examples was after we won our gold medal game, we traveled to Jerusalem from Haifa to watch the Open team's gold medal game. I was walking with my teammate, Drew Rodgers, and it took us around 45 minutes to get from one side of the gym to the other because every few steps, there would be someone else who wanted to talk to us, and it was incredible. From the 10-year-olds who asked us what NBA team we were on to the older people that asked us how our experience was, it was simply amazing. The joy in people's eyes and faces made me so genuinely happy whenever Drew and I told them how much it meant to be in Israel and that we most definitely will come back soon.
Another part of the experience that was incredible and special to me was meeting Jewish athletes from around the world. As the hotels weren't super close to each other, we only got chances to interact with athletes from other countries at games, watching other sports games, or Maccabiah events where all the athletes came together. Those were easily some of my favorite events. I became very close with the Argentinian and Australian 16u basketball teams, and I got many of the athletes' contacts and plan to stay in touch with them for a long time. With the Argentinian team and other Spanish-speaking countries, it was a very unique experience, as no one besides me on our team could really speak Spanish. Not only did that lead to me using my Spanish daily and improving my language skills, but it also gave me a pretty big advantage in trading stuff with them, as I got two pretty cool Argentinian shirts because I was trading with them in Spanish. I also spoke with some Israelis that traveled with us for the Israel Connect portion, though my Spanish is much more advanced than my Hebrew. By the next time I go to Israel, I want to be able to have advanced conversations in Hebrew instead of just the basic conversations I can currently have. Being able to talk to them in Spanish and learn more about them provided me with a different perspective, and my goal is to be able to replicate that experience with Hebrew. During our Lev L'Lev community service day, I could replicate that to a certain extent. Our team visited a senior citizen home where very few of them spoke English; if they did, it was not much. I was able to speak Hebrew with them, and because of that, I was able to learn more about each of them individually and connect with them in a way I could not have without speaking a little Hebrew.
The day that had the biggest impact on me was easily our day in Jerusalem. The day was emotion-packed, and it was also a lot of firsts for me personally. I became a bar mitzvah in Israel at a service with all of Maccabi USA, laid tefillin at the Western Wall, and visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum, all in one day. Each of those three things was special in its own unique way. For those who don't know, laying tefillin is a ritual done since the beginning of Judaism. Tefillin themselves are a pair of black leather boxes containing Hebrew parchment scrolls. Yad Vashem was an extremely moving place; walking through it and reading about all of the things done to people just because of what they believed or how they looked was and always has been shocking for me. I could go write a whole essay specifically about what I saw there and how it impacted me, and it would not even make up a quarter of everything I felt.
The last month would not have been anything close to the amazing experience it was without my coaches and teammates. My coaches, Michael Weinstein and Jon Tramer, were amazing and some of the best coaches I've been around. All of my teammates made the experience a thousand times more fun and memorable, whether it be laughing on the bus on the way back from a game or walking through the Tel Aviv shooks watching each other try to bargain with the vendors. I could list a thousand times that my coaches and teammates turned any old conversation, bus ride, or anything we did together into a memory I will never forget. Over the last month, all of my 13 teammates and coaches turned into family and people I will never forget for the rest of my life.
I am extremely excited to share my incredible experience with the next generation of Jewish athletes, leaders, and students. A few years ago, I never would have dreamed of being able to play in a basketball tournament in a whole other country, let alone Israel. Thank you for everything, and I promise to make the most of it.