Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Epilogue: A Letter to Myself

Dear future self,

I see the sprawling lights of Los Angeles fading into the distance from the airplane window, and I wonder when I'll see them next. I have no way to know. The closest thing to seeing through time is this letter I'm writing. I want to document my thoughts and feelings now, because I know there will come a day, sooner or later, when I will ask myself "what was I thinking?"

Now all I can see from my window is a deep, empty darkness. There will be times in the near future when that darkness will be all I am able to see. It's those times that this letter is for. I know the challenges ahead. Leaving the places I've called home for my entire life and leaving my family. Acclimating to a new home, and learning a new language. Willingly giving up my freedom to the army for two years. These things will not be easy.

I wish there was a better way to be there for you, future Brian. But these words without paper in letters without envelopes will have to suffice. Read these letters, and try to recreate my current state of mind. The home you left was your place of sojourning for decades; where you are returning to has been your homeland for millenia. The language you miss is the language of others; the language you are struggling to learn is truly your own. Your immediate family is across an ocean (for now), but you are here with your entire people. The causes and institutions for which you are putting your own needs aside are good and just.

When things get hard, rely on your Garin. I haven't known them for very long, but I can already tell that they are awesome, and they will be there when you need them. Be patient, and give yourself time to adjust. Stand up for yourself, but take things in stride. Keep your idealism and your sense of humor. Forgive people, especially yourself.

You may eventually conclude that this step was a mistake. You might blame, correctly, your naive youthful idealism. If that comes to pass, I'll accept a trans-temporal "I told you so." I hope you at least understand what I was looking for, but I really hope you do find it.

It's been a bittersweet sleepless night. As we glide over the sleeping Mediterranean Sea, I see the lights of Tel Aviv ahead in the distance. And on the horizon, the dawn begins to rise. I feel like those pink and orange rays are shining just for me.

Good morning, Israel, I'm home.


Saturday, August 11, 2012

Don't Forget the Dream

Dear Israel,

In my final days in the states before my aliya flight, my thoughts turn increasingly to you. The last few months have been about the past, about finishing unfinished business, and about saying goodbyes. But now, it's time to think about the future, and about why I'm making this step.

Many American Jewish thinkers lament the decline of Zionism among young American Jews. This worries me, but not nearly as much as its decline among Israelis. The Zionism of American Jewry will always be, at best, secondary. One step removed from tangible reality. But in Israel, if Zionism is thought to be finished or no longer relevant, the very heart of the Zionist project is at stake.

The root of the misunderstanding can be found in the popular but incomplete definition of Zionism: the quest for a Jewish state, a place where the Jews can be secure. If that was all Zionism was about, I would stay here in the comfort of southern California and relegate Herzl to the history books.

To be sure, Israel, your very existence is indeed a miracle, for which we should be proud and thankful. But is it enough? The great Zionist leaders didn't think so.

Zionism is about a national renaissance for the Jewish people. An attempt to reverse a historical narrative that for thousands of years made us a diaspora people, without a living culture or national consciousness. The Zionists believed that it was time to return the Jews to the land of Israel. Coming home was the first step.

But what about the next steps? Some believed that our renaissance would be based on a return to living on the land and a return to the Hebrew language. Others focused on changing the character of the Jew from a crippled sage into a strong, confident, modern man. Still others believed that Zionism was about building in Israel a cultural center, where Jewish values and moral ideas could flourish and spread outwards to the world.

That conversation is the one which is still relevant, which is still going on today. The state of Israel is only the canvas; the masterpiece of Zionism is not complete.

Today in Israel, many are asking the important questions for the Jewish people in our era: What does Jewish faith and practice look like when returned to a national, political context? How do the Jewish people move forward while preserving tradition in the modern era? How can the state of Israel enrich Jewish life in the diaspora? These individuals are doing amazing work, and they are an inspiration to me.

But many are not asking these questions. They are not what we hear about in the news. The popular issues are party politics and power struggles, the conflicts with the Arabs, and economic policy. Not that those are unimportant issues. The fact that we have built a state in which there are normal conflicts, over normal things, is a measure of our success. We wanted to be restored to a normal national existence? We got it.

Israel has surely brought us new challenges. It has put the secular and the Haredi literally next door to each other. It has given us the questions of war, peace, taxes, and politics to deal with. But these are challenges which enrich us. They are opportunities to find Jewish answers to these questions, instead of living by the answers of others.

I see so many Israelis who are disillusioned with or disinterested in the Zionist project, and it troubles me. They feel like we have nowhere left to go, or believe that our problems are insurmountable. They no longer want to ask the important questions, or to take the challenges as opportunities instead of obstacles.

That's why I'm making aliya. I'm coming to remind you about the dream.

Do you know, Israel, that you are a tremendous source of pride for American Jews? For many of them, you are their strongest tie to Judaism and to the Jewish people. Even to many of us who have never set foot on the your soil, the sight of your waving flag and the solemn melody of Hatikvah bring a tear to our eyes. Just because of what you represent.

It may be a little vain and a little silly. For us to be attached so deeply to something we barely know. We don't live under the threat of rocket fire. We don't have to put up with the frustrating politics. But those very weaknesses are also our greatest strengths. Since we don't have to deal with the day to day realities, we are able to maintain the dream. We remember who you are, why you are, and what you can and will become.

I have so much respect for the Israeli citizens who get up every morning and make the Jewish state a reality, instead of just a dream. I have so much admiration for the Israeli soldiers who get up every morning and make sure that the state will still be here tomorrow. One day, I will be like them.

But I won't be an Israeli yet when I get off that plane. I'll still be an American Jew. And maybe in that capacity, I can bring a little of something you don't have enough of. Maybe I can bring just a little bit of inspiration, to remind you to be thankful for what you have, and to be proud of what you have accomplished, and always to strive to make it better. Don't forget the dream.


Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Being Jewish in America

Dear United States of America,

Happy birthday! Today, while eating kosher hamburgers and apple pie at a Fourth of July barbecue, I was thinking about you, about what it means to be an American Jew, and about the future.

This country is an exceptional place. I love so many things about you, and you've been a good home to me. Among all the lands of the Jewish diaspora, here the Jews are extremely safe, successful, and comfortable. For all of this I thank you. But I think there is something missing for me here.

While on the bus to the fireworks show at the Berkeley marina this evening, I heard a medley of languages, and I looked around at the various peoples who are all Americans. Certainly this is an accomplishment, but at what cost does it come? Many of these people, their parents, or their grandparents, have given up some identity and culture to be a part of this country's great project. As a Jew, I've been conditioned to be wary of assimilation, and I think for good reason.

Especially at this point in our people's history, we have our own great project with which to concern ourselves. We have our nation and homeland to rebuild, our people and culture to restore, and important questions about the Jewish future to discuss. It is to be a part of this project that I am going on a journey away from you, America, to see if I can find something which I didn't have here. It is only in search of something new that I am leaving; I have nothing here from which to run away.

I am glad there is and will continue to be a strong Jewish community in the United States. The Jews have something to learn from you, and you have something to learn from the Jews. But for either of those processes to be successful, the Jews here will need to walk the fine line between isolation and assimilation. I hope that the state of Israel will be able to help them in that challenge, to be a root and a cornerstone for them. And I hope that you, America, will continue to love the Jews and treat them well. Respect them for what they have in common with your majority, and respect them for their differences.

I will always consider you one of my homes, because I know I will always be welcome here. Happy Independence Day, and may God bless America.


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

10 Tips for Zionist Activists

Dear Zionist activists everywhere,

For the last four years I was an active member and leader of Tikvah: Students for Israel. We worked to teach about and advocate for Israel and Zionism on the UC Berkeley campus. That experience helped me grown and learn a lot, and contributed to my decision to make aliya and serve in the IDF.

Since I'm stepping out of the advocacy world, I wanted to take a moment here to write a letter to my colleagues in Tikvah, and to my fellow activists around the globe.

First, and most importantly, thank you for what you do. I know it's hard, whether you're facing hostile anti-Israel activists, a Jewish establishment that doesn't support you, apathy or ignorance about Israel, or financial and practical obstacles to your work. But stay strong, and remember in the moments of difficulty that what you are doing is important, just, meaningful, and worthwhile. Israel, the Jewish people, and the world at large are better off because of your hard work and dedication.

I'd like to leave a few pieces of advice, in the hope that others can learn from my experience and my mistakes:
  1. Know the difference between being Zionist and pro-Israel. Israel is a state, with all the realities and complexities that come with it. Zionism is an idea: pure, simple, and beautiful. Zionism is a movement of national liberation and national renaissance, the idea that the Jewish people should live as a sovereign nation in their homeland. Zionism is the real message; supporting the state of Israel is a natural conclusion of Zionism.
  2. Stay focused on the message of Zionism. The peace process, territorial compromise, democracy, cell phones, and terrorism all have their place in the discussion, but without the foundation of Zionism, none of it will make sense. Explain why Israel is important in the first place, and only then explain the situation and threats it faces. Sometimes the best message is the simple line of Hatikvah: "to be a free people in our land."
  3. Educate yourselves, and educate your peers. Read books, read the Israeli news, discuss and debate issues among yourselves. Know when to use the sound bites, but understand that they are not enough. You will be respected by your audience for your erudition.
  4. Being intellectually honest requires constantly questioning your own beliefs. This is a strength, not a weakness, because the truth is on our side. If you are diligent, educated, and intellectually honest, you will find truth and you will find confidence in your conclusions.
  5. Know when to make compromises and when to stand fast to your beliefs: there is a time for war and a time for peace. Sometimes a compromise is worthwhile to maintain an ally, but if the compromise requested is too great, that alliance is probably not worthwhile anyway.
  6. Remember that most importantly of all, Jews are your target audience. This is true for its own sake, and also because where there is a strong Jewish pro-Israel community, others will hear your message louder.
  7. Sometimes the Jewish establishment makes mistakes. When it does, you must not follow it blindly but you must not give up on it. It is better at fundraising than fighting, and shies away from controversy; don't expect it ever to be good at activism.
  8. Know what works for you. The atmosphere, interests, and values of each campus or community are different. Break out of the mold of middle aged white Jewish men lecturing about the danger from Israel's enemies. Be creative, try new things, and learn from experience.
  9. For those of you on college campuses, four years is a short period of time, and allows for little institutional memory. Discuss what works and what doesn't, and write down the lessons learned. Educate, inspire, and equip younger activists to take your place when you leave.
  10. Remember that what you do is about your personal growth and the growth of your community as much or more as it is about convincing the outside world.
Good luck and success in all of your endeavors.

לחרות ציון
For the freedom of Zion,
Brian Maissy

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Complaint, Apology, Thanks, and Farewell

Dear Berkeley,

You are quite a place. You have shaped me significantly during my time here. You have given me happiness, frustration, and much to ponder. This is a letter of complaint, apology, thanks, and farewell.

Protests, frat parties, tree sitters, midterms, and street people on Telegraph. At least I can say it was never dull. There's so much that's messed up about this city and this university. Your values, your ideals, your style - they don't appeal to me. It's hard to sum up everything 'Berkeley' represents, but the label isn't a complement. You have a warped cynicism wrapped in a veneer of idealism. You have a shallow tolerance and open-mindedness, which only extend to the fashionable few. Your fervor to change more frequently destroys than it creates. Berkeley is intelligence and emotion and energy without guiding force or direction. Often we have not gotten along, and part of me is happy to leave.

But maybe I am too quick to criticize. (That is, after all, one of the things I learned from you.) So here's my apology:  I am sorry for my high expectations, which you couldn't have possibly met. I am sorry for passing judgement on you when you were being foolish. I am sorry for not loving your unloving ways. I am sorry for my hubris, which did not allow me to tolerate your abuse. I am sorry for dismissing the cynics, critics, idiots, and conspiracy theorists, without a fair hearing. And I am sorry for not giving up on trying to change you, even though I should have known it was futile.

All jokes aside, I really must thank you, because I have grown a lot here. This university is a place of profound learning and knowledge. My professors, mentors, and colleagues have given me a tremendous body of knowledge and understanding. The myriad opportunities here, to learn, research, explore, lead, and build - are unparalleled. For all of this I will be eternally thankful. And even in the ways that one would least expect it - you have encouraged my growth. Who would have thought that in a place hostile to Judiasm I would have grown in my faith, or that in a place hostile to Israel I would have discovered my Zionism. Maybe all the pressure gave me the push I needed to look within myself. Maybe that's how you intended it all along.

And so I take my leave of this perfectly preposterous kingdom of crazies, glad to have come and glad to be going. If you remember me, remember me fondly, for so I will be remembering you.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Letter to My Friends

Dear friends,

I hope this letter finds you well. As you might know by now, I am making aliya (immigrating to Israel) and joining the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) at the end of the summer, with a program called Garin Tzabar. The purpose of Garin Tzabar is to help people like me (without immediate family in Israel, called lone soldiers) undertake the transition and process of making aliya and doing army service. I will be living on Kibbutz Beerot Yitzhak (in the center of Israel) with a group of fellow lone soldiers (the garin), and serving in the military for approximately two years. I don't yet know in what capacity I will be serving.

A little bit of background for those friends of mine who I haven't been able to keep in touch with over the last few years: I just graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in computer science. During college, I developed certain parts of my identity which had previously been lying dormant. I was born and raised in a Jewish household, but only in the past four years have I seriously explored my Judaism and started learning and practicing the precepts of my religion. I have found in Judaism a wealth of wisdom and truth, which I have chosen to make a large part of my life.

Also in college I became interested in Israel. My dad is Israeli, I have extended family there, and I have visited every few years since my childhood, but I always took Israel for granted, both as an idea and as a reality. Israel as an idea is Zionism: the national liberation movement of the Jewish people for self-determination in our homeland. Israel as a reality is a fascinating, complex, and beloved place where the Jews as a people have the brightest future and each Jew individually feels at home. Interestingly, it was the virulently anti-Israel activists at Berkeley who caught my attention, sparked my interest, and made me start thinking and questioning about Israel. In addition to my personal learning and reading, I became involved in and eventually served as co-president of Tikvah: Students for Israel, a Zionist activist student group at Berkeley. I also spent each of the last three summers in Israel, learning, traveling, and exploring.

For those of you who don't know, in Israel there is a mandatory draft to the military. While I was choosing where to go to college, the typical Israeli 18-year-old was preparing for his enlistment. Unfortunately, the homeland of the Jews happens to be located in a tough neighborhood, and maintaining a strong defense force is a necessity for Israel's safety. This burden falls squarely on the shoulders of the Israeli citizen, who puts on the uniform of the IDF to represent and protect not just the borders of Israel, but the Jewish people as a whole. The IDF is truly a people's military: the army experience is an Israeli rite of passage, an aid in assimilating immigrants, and the intersection between otherwise largely distinct segments of Israeli society.

For the last couple years, it has been clear to me that after graduating from Berkeley I wanted to go to Israel, at least to spend an extended period of time, if not to live permanently. In the last few months I made the official decision to gain Israeli citizenship and serve in the IDF. I want to experience what it is like to live in the one place where a Jew can feel that he belongs, to truly be home. I want to be in a country which shares my language, my calendar, my values, my history, and my identity. I want to be near my extended family - my aunts, uncles, and cousins, and the millions of Jews who are all my brothers and sisters. I want to be in the center of the Jewish world, to be a part of my people's history. I want to partake of the miracle which is Israel, a state built in a few decades out of ruins, swamps, and sand dunes into a thriving first-world country. A state which transformed its inhabitants from martyrs and refugees into pioneers, fighters, and leaders. A state which has revived the ancient Hebrew language as a vernacular, become the world center of Jewish learning, and restored pride and hope to the Jewish people. I want to be a part of all of that, to be uplifted by it, and to do my small part in helping with the upbuilding of the state of Israel and the Jewish people.

I see my service in the IDF in a few different ways. First, as my duty to Israel to participate in the defense of the nation. Second, as a way to acculturate into Israeli society. And third, as an experience of personal growth. The guidance and assistance that the Garin Tzabar program, the kibbutz, and my garin will give me throughout the entire experience will be invaluable towards achieving these goals.

For the next two months I will be living in Berkley. I am working full time as a software engineer at an exciting HTML5 startup, which I will be sad to leave. On the side I am working on my Hebrew, tying up loose ends in Berkeley, and preparing for Israel.

This is not a goodbye letter, but it will likely be a while until I see most of you again in person. So I feel that it would be amiss to conclude this letter without saying thank you to everyone who has been a friend to me, during my time at Berkeley and before. Your companionship and support have meant the world to me, for which I am very grateful, and I'll miss you tremendously when I am in Israel. All the best, and please stay in touch.



In two months from today, on August 13, 2012, my life will change radically. I will step onto a Nefesh B'Nefesh aliya charter flight, and begin a new chapter of my life: as a college graduate, as an Israeli citizen, and as an IDF solider. The question of how to prepare for that chapter is compounded in difficulty by the fact that I must simultaneously finish the current chapter: my last four years in Berkeley have given me plenty to contemplate.

I have been asked many times to explain my thoughts, hopes, and motivations about this endeavor, most frequently by myself. So I hereby present this series of letters, this epilogue and prologue, in which I will reflect on this period of transition. I hope the process of writing will catalyze my own thoughts, and if my account is interesting or useful to anyone else out there, I'll consider it an unexpected bonus.