I'll never forget the first time I stepped off the plane at Ben-Gurion Airport. It was the summer before my junior year of college and, as a participant on Birthright Israel, I was finally being given the chance to see the country I'd grown up learning about.
Walking up the jet way, I remember seeing Hebrew all over the walls, a mezuzah on the exit leading to the terminal and feeling overwhelmed by excitement as I entered a new world in which I'd never been. Yet somehow, I felt strangely at home.
Three years later, I found myself walking up that same jet way, feeling the same exhilaration, but this time, taking my first steps as an oleh chadash — a new immigrant, a new Israeli — in a place that feels more like home than I ever thought it could.
My first day in Israel went by like a blur. A middle-aged man wearing a kipah and holding a sign with my name on it greeted me as I got off the plane. When I indicated to him who I was, he simply smiled warmly, shook my hand and said: Baruch ha'ba, "Welcome home."
I still don't think I've truly awakened to the fact that my life has changed irreparably in a wonderful way. Making aliyah is a radical transformation (someone I met even referred to it as "traumatic"), in which everything that you once knew changes fundamentally. It starts a process toward a complete identity shift. I'm no longer an American spending time in Israel who has a return airline ticket waiting for him. I am now an Israeli-American, living in Tel Aviv and trying to figure out how graduate school, my career and the army all fit together.
In many ways, the real shock is how differently I look at everything. During my time studying abroad at Tel Aviv University, I always used to think, "Look at this beautiful country that they created."
I was constantly blown away by the reality that the Jewish state is almost the same age as my parents; and that Israelis who are my grandparents' age have been a part of Israel as it both fought for independence and also watched its ascension to international inclusion in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, all within a mere 62 years. That, to me, is nothing short of miraculous.
Now, I no longer say "they," because I am a part of this country's future.
Every day is an adventure filled with challenges. I spent the first two weeks running among government offices, attempting to get through the overwhelmingly disordered Israeli bureaucracy as painlessly as possible.
But even more complicated than obtaining a teudat zehut — an ID card — or acquiring government-subsidized health insurance, or even deciding how people are going to pronounce my name from now on, is figuring out exactly what to do next.
While all new immigrants share the bureaucratic first steps, we all take different turns from there. My path is leading me toward the army. How long it takes me to get there, my duration of service, and what my contribution will be are all decisions that have yet to be made.
In spite of the many question marks that inevitably come from such a drastic life change, I am where I have long wanted to be. Whether it's serving in the Israel Defense Force or working toward fluency in Hebrew, there is something to be said about your life suddenly becoming a dream come true.
I recently found a place to live — an apartment located just a block away from Yitzhak Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. While signing the paperwork, I couldn't help but smile as it finally sank in that after years of indecision and then months of preparation, I succeeded in making my favorite place my home.
Uri Snyder grew up in West Philadelphia and graduated from Penn State University. He made aliyah last month.