JITLI has been one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I started out very reluctant, in fact I almost didn’t even apply but before I could back out Ian and Yigal (the JITLI staff) convinced me to apply. So a few weeks passed and I came to the workshop in which the final participants would be decided. We played games and did different team based exercises and it was all fun and games until the end. The final activity was to share something deeply personal about yourself. By the end, people were crying and although it was uncomfortable, I felt closer to everyone in that room. That was my first JITLI moment.

After a few days, I found out I got in to the program and I was ecstatic. Over the next few months we came together as a group and learned about Israel, the Conflict and Judaism in general. As we attended these meetings we took on certain archetypal roles. There was the smart one, the sporty one, the quiet one. It was a very superficial relationship. Our young counselor, Ian kept talking about how close we would all become and I couldn’t understand it. I had being seeing them for months but I still didn’t feel like I knew my JITLI group. I kept coming to meetings, though I realized I had begun to dread them. I felt both indifferent to others and extremely sensitive about what they thought of me. By the time we were ready to leave for Israel I was even considering leaving the trip, it was stressing me out to no end. But I went.

The first day of the trip was an immediate change of pace. We all met at Ian’s house and it was clear to see that most of the group was uneasy, anxiously awaiting the new experiences that lay before them.  I got there at about six o’clock and we just kind of messed around for a few hours and then Ian, very seriously, took us all outside. We sat down. Then we just talked. We opened up about things we were dealing with, things we were scared of, things we loved. And it was JITLI again. And all of the fear and anxiety and angst that had weighed me down, was, if for a moment, gone, replaced by an excited and honest optimism I hadn’t felt for a long time.

After that we all went to bed and that night as I closed my eyes, my brain was an amalgam of anxiety, hope, fear and, considering it was 2AM, exhaustion (Exhaustion being a feeling that would soon become common place during my JITLI experience). The next day we took the plane and some hours later arrived in Israel. We entered the airport to the sight of 30 teenagers doing the Macarena, welcoming us to this new and strange place. I was soon introduced to all of the participants, the excitement clear on their faces (I would find out later that for many of them, this was their first time meeting an American).

At first, it was, just as Yigal (our wise-old-man counselor) had warned, incredibly awkward. There was the language barrier, the cultural differences and the kind of sizing up of each other that’s pretty commonplace with high school aged kids. As an American it was especially hard because, although almost everyone spoke fluent Hebrew, only about half of the kids spoke English well; however, as time passed we did grow closer. I think we grew closer due to a mixture of free time on the bus to talk to each other one-on-one and JITLI time. JITLI time happened mostly throughout the first week of JITLI. It was just a time in the schedule where we would, as a group talk about an issue. Often during JITLI time, tempers would flair but in the end we could usually sit down to have a meaningful dialogue.

I bonded with a lot of the people on the trip. We talked about everything from Israeli Army Service to rock bands to the T.V show community (Which I love. Dan Harmon is the best). It was amazing to explore the culture, especially with the Muslims. They knew I knew nothing about Islam and they had the patience to explain all sorts of things about their religion to me. As different as we were, we all also had a lot in common, we played the same games, we watched the same Vines, and we knew the same songs. Sometimes, I began to wonder how there could be a problem at all, we were all just people and we all seemed to like each other. But then, there were times where I was reminded of our differences. When a Muslim would casually throw out a homophobic slur, when an Israeli would dejectedly remark that there could be no compromise between Arabs and Jews. It was at times like these that I reminded myself, it is not our job to change anyone’s mind or alter anyone’s way of life, the only thing we are trying to do here is talk and understand that on every side of the conflict there are good and well-meaning people.

By the end of JITLI, despite our differences we were a family. Even the people who I didn’t get along with so well in the beginning slowly became better. It wasn’t them who changed though, in the end, it was me who changed. I could see past a lot of the superficial things which had repelled me before and suddenly, I could see a person, with dreams and fears and aspirations. I had been in these people’s homes, I had talked with their families; it suddenly became very difficult to just write someone off as mean or annoying. Suddenly, there was a story, a struggle, and often, beneath the jagged superfice was a person who was just like me. This has affected the way I see people, even now back in the States.

JITLI changed my life. It might have educated me on the specifics of the Conflict, or the history of the place, but all of that is secondary. JITLI taught me how to be a better person. Often in JITLI we talk about “JITLI moments”. At first, I was incredibly sceptical of this concept, it sounded like some sort of social media marketing campaign (Share your #JITLImoment with us at www.JITLI.com) but now I understand. A JITLI moment is, simply put, a moment of humanity at its best. It’s when an Arab girl who’s barely even held hands with a boy before asks you to dance. It’s when one girl start singing and suddenly the rest of the room and a stadium, filled with screaming fans. It’s when someone can cry, knowing that they’ll have around them, the arm of someone who really cares. When I started this program, “JITLI moment” seemed to me like the most artificial, cliquey term there ever was but now I get that really all JITLI is, is a collection of JITLI moments. Here’s something else I get now, the best part of life is JITLI moments.

This wasn’t something I realized instantly. I came back from the trip and kind of just settled back in. I watched myself, sadly, as I slowly readjusted to normal life, normal conversations, normal anxiety, normal distance from those around me. Then we met again, in a way for the last time. We came together as a group of JITLI participants for a final time, and we just talked. It was just like before, but different, I wasn’t scared of these people any more, they were my friends, my role models, my teachers. We talked about how we would bring JITLI back home with us. In that, we were really answering two questions, 1. What is JITLI? 2. What parts of JITLI can be applied to any part of life. We discussed this at great length but here’s what it boiled down to. 1. JITLI is people, understand another person’s story, ask them questions, see them as a person as opposed just a Jock or a Nerd or a Muslim or a Jew. 2. The most important thing we have to remember coming back from JITLI is to not be on “auto-pilot”. We’ve all experienced this fantastic intimacy, this strange openness, while we were on JITLI and now we have to remember to bring that back. Not being on auto-pilot, means asking questions and being open. Sometimes things are going to be awkward, sometimes things are going to be uncomfortable but that’s OK. Just remember to make every interaction you can have meaning.

Because we know people for so long we forget how transient our relationships are. JITLI has reminded me to make the time I have with people special. To find the story, to open up, to try and make my life…a JITLI moment.