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Education v. Israel: the ultimate clash of Jewish values

I am going to college. This concept should in no way be radical. This concept should not be radical because I am an American teenager who has spent the past thirteen years of my academic life (plus some time well-served in JCC pre-K) preparing for another four years of undergrad. But to me, the notion of my going to college is, in fact, radical, because it means that education won in the battle of my core Jewish values.

Over the past few months, I have been struggling to choose between two of the most important things in my life: Israel and education. While these two entities normally coexist peacefully—and often times benefit from one another—when it comes to the current stage of my life, they could not be at greater odds.

For as long as I can remember, my parents have always stressed both the importance of education and the importance of Israel. Education has always been a core value in my household, as my parents elected to send me to Jewish day school from kindergarten on. For my parents, I don’t think it was ever even a question whether or not I would continue my education through collegiate endeavors, because they just assumed that I would. Yet because of how central Israel is to my life, college should have been a question.

In my house, Israel has always been supported unconditionally. With two parents who both possess very strong ties to the Jewish homeland, I was destined to become a Zionist myself. I could not escape the Israeli children’s albums that I spent years listening to in the car, nor could I run from my predetermined fate of loving the land of my ancestors as much as—if not more than—my parents. I was always going to love Israel. That was not a question.

What was a question, however, was how my education and my love for Israel were going to be able to work together. For a while, my education was a path through which I was able to love Israel. I learned Hebrew and was exposed to Israeli culture. I took classes on Zionism and my Jewish high school even provided me with the opportunity to study abroad in Israel for three months. Living abroad was probably the tipping point for me. After that experience, I fully embraced my fate as an unequivocal, unapologetic Zionist. I became more invested in learning about Israel, instead of just passively loving the country. Thus began my struggle.

I loved Israel and I knew that my education was important, but with the impending turning point in my life, the two values were finally coming in conflict with one another. As a Zionist who fully intends to one day make aliyah, college did not seem like the right choice. How could I allow my parents to pay for four more years of tuition at an esteemed, private institution when I knew that in my heart I belonged in Israel? Yet, having grown up deeply appreciating education, going to college was the natural choice. Going to the Israel was the crazy choice. Going to Israel was terrifying and it just wasn’t something that girls like me did. Going to Israel would feel like I was throwing away all those years of Jewish day school tuition, yet it was also what Jewish day school had prepared me for. Therein lay the problem.

Briefly, I considered compromising. I could take a gap year in Israel and then go to college. But I knew that I couldn’t take a gap year. If I took a gap year, I would feel incurably guilty for having my parents spend even more money that wasn’t directly going to my nice liberal arts degree. If I took a gap year—even if it were service-based with a strong emphasis on volunteering and tikun olam—I would also feel guilty for living in limbo and enjoying myself, while my Israeli peers were beginning their IDF service. If I took a gap year, I would not come back. If I took a gap year, Israel would win.

There were other options that I considered, too, like joining the IDF. Part of me felt like I should be joining the IDF, because as a Zionist, it felt like the natural way to support the country that I love. Joining the IDF would make me feel like I’m a part of something bigger than myself. Joining the IDF would give my life immediate purpose. But because a third of my year was spent watching movies about the IDF in Hebrew class, I knew that I would probably just end up working in an office, stapling papers for two years. While stapling papers may ultimately help the State of Israel, I would feel like my time could be better spent earning a degree.

I had ruled out a gap year and the IDF, which left one last compromise to contemplate: going to an Israeli university. This option, however, was squashed in my very first college-counseling meeting. While going to college in Israel may seem like the perfect marriage of education and Israel, it wasn’t what I needed. If I were to go to college in Israel, I would be learning amongst primarily older, cultured Israelis who had already served in the IDF and explored the world. They would be miles ahead of me, and I would feel inadequate, guilty for not having stapled my way through the IDF, and immature. I couldn’t go to college in Israel.

Despite spending so much time telling myself that college is the correct decision for me right now, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if Israel won. But I took my SATs, I applied to nice schools with sizable Jewish populations, and I even got into a few of those schools. Now I’m going to one of those schools and I am petrified that I made the wrong decision. I know I will join pro-Israel groups on campus and spend my junior year abroad in Israel, but I don’t know how those activities will be able to fully satiate my Zionism. I love Israel, but I am going to college.

About the Author
Sophie is an undergraduate student at Tulane University. She likes aloe water almost as much as she likes Zionism and writing.
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