Hurried clicking of heels on the sidewalk, laughter and shivers echoing on the streets, rain pouring from the December sky: my first Shabbat in Israel. What a whirlwind experience that was -- 14 days exploring various facets of this country with a group of my peers. Never could I have imagined the lasting impact of that tour, that gift. I went home indescribably overwhelmed. And once home, I felt homesick for a land that was simultaneously foreign and familiar. For 18 months I replayed every moments of those first two weeks. I searched for ways to come back -- to fill a void I didn't know existed.

Enter Livnot U'Lehibanot, via the Galilee fellowship. Here was my opportunity to come back to my ancient home and do more than tour. Some hiking, some community service in the form of repairing bomb shelters in Tzfat, and some experiential learning. That was the extent of my expectations prior to arriving. What did all that mean in practice?

It meant waking up by 6 am to be on the tour bus going to Yehudiya. Climbing down the side of a canyon to carefully wade through a water covered trail. Pushing the comfort zone, standing on a 10 meter high ledge before taking a leap; a leap of strength, of community, of faith. Or arriving at a trailhead shy of dusk, so as to catch the sun setting over the Dead Sea. Meaning we then had to descend the steep terrain in the dark, guided only by the moonlight and each other. This was no ordinary hiking.

I had never set foot in a bomb shelter, in America or elsewhere, never had to. The reality of their need in Israel became clear in Tzfat, where they more than dotted the landscape. Whatever vision I had of some cozy place to stay calm in while bombs rained overhead quickly dissipated. Thorny weeds had overgrown the outer structure, while standing water created a moldy aroma inside. Though we hadn't worked together before, the ten chevre knew what type of teamwork it was going to take to find dry ground. In less than five hours, the place had been cleared and the first coat of fresh paint had been applied to the walls. Though sweaty and exhausted, we were all smiles. We had cleaned up more than just a bomb shelter that day. In a time equivalent to 80 man hours, the shelter received a facelift both inside and out. The community it served was given a new lease on safety.

Experiential learning, i.e. hands on education. Again, I thought I knew what that meant; again I would be proven wrong. The carob tree can symbolize community. Being told this in a classroom would have passed along the information, and little else. After walking for a ways in the midday May sun, we happened upon one such tree. Without discussion we filed in, each making room for the next, under the welcome shade. We were a community and that lesson couldn't have been taught in a classroom. Having all heard about the Kotel, our visit there on the Sabbath connected our community to those of millennia past. As a group we gazed at the wall, standing in awe. Past, present, and future were all in attendance that night.

I came to Israel a couple of weeks ago to build bomb shelters. I stand here now having built bomb shelters, friendships, knowledge, love, self. I was built. As I face the uncertainty of the coming summer, to be spent in Israel, I am armed with the confidence given to me by this nation. So thank you Israel. Thank you for opening your land, your homes, and your hearts. Thank you for bringing me home.