“Welcome home.”

I’m caught off guard. It’s my second day in Israel and here I am, amid a gaggle of cargo shorts wearing Americans and having been told by an interested local:

“Welcome home.”

I’m surprised. It’s my seventh time abroad and never have I ever been met with something as simple, as full as an interested local telling us:

“Welcome home.”

I’m Jewish. It’s my twenty-second year and I decided to go to Israel with my brother and forty-eight strangers on a Taglit-Birthright tour called Israel by Foot. I like hiking and learning and travel so I asked my brother in March if he wanted to go to Israel with me in August.

And now here we are.

It’s hot and dry and we’re in a small town getting lunch before rafting down the Jordan River later this afternoon. We act like newborn sheep – unsure of our footing in this strange new place, surrounded by strange new people. We travel in packs – a big horde of us deciding to get either shawarma or pizza. We say toda hesitantly – slowly letting our mouths wrap around the Hebrew words that we’ve learnt. And when an interested local asks the customary,

Taglit?

After seeing our troupe of loud and bumbling Americans, I nod and brace myself for the snooty Ahh or the openly disdainful sneer that I’ve come to expect in my Western travels. Armed with a neutral wardrobe, slow saunter and mastery of basic foreign language phrases, I’ve traveled solo and silently throughout most of Europe, trying to cover up any signs of my American citizenship, determined to trick people into thinking that I’m Canadian so as to avoid being branded by the stereotypes that follow us voyaging Americans. But instead, we’re met with a simple:

“Welcome home.”

And then slowly, surely, miraculously, expectedly, everything begins to change.

New friends become familiar ones. New places become ones that I’ve been to, seen, felt. New words become practiced ones.

The trip ends but I stay, housed in a small apartment with an eighty-four-year-old woman who speaks no English. She buys me flowers on my birthday and makes a spare set of keys for me. She takes me to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with her family. Her son drives me to Caesarea and takes me out to dinner. Her granddaughter invites me swimming and smuggles a fancy cupcake from her work for me. A relative takes me out for a birthday lunch on the beach. They each give me a gift the day I leave: a ceramic plate, a bowl of blueberries, a purse-sized prayer book.

It’s my last day and I’m at a secondhand bookstore looking for reading material for my plane ride to Greece in twenty-four hours. An interested local sees me examining English books and asks me where I’m from.

“Is this your first time to Israel?” He asks, after I tell him that I’m American.

I nod.

“Welcome home,” He says.

And I’m surprised to find that I’m not surprised by it anymore.

I feel at home.

I feel Israel.

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