Testimonial: Zach Goorno (Gap Year ’21, Bowdoin ’24)

Spending this past spring in Israel was an eye opening experience for me. I returned back to the United States with an incredible group of friends, a stronger sense of Jewish identity, and a widened view of the world with a more knowledgeable outlook on the Middle East.

I still remain in close contact with many of the friends I made during my two months in Israel. From fellow teammates, to Israel Lacrosse Staff, to the players I had the privilege of coaching, I interacted daily with incredibly bright, kind, and hard-working people. We sweat together, laughed together, and cried together. From sharing jokes and hilarious moments to unique stories about our upbringings and learning what being Jewish meant to each of us on a personal level, my two months in Israel washed away the dreariness and mental fog that had accumulated slowly during the pandemic, and I returned home feeling fresh, alive, and ready to tackle new challenges that came my way.

Although I absolutely loved the lacrosse training and seeing the beautiful country for the first time, my favorite aspect of being in Israel was the people I met. Their outlook on life, along with their pride and connection to their Jewish identity, was commendable. Having been through so much as a country in such a short period of time, I found that most of the people I met in Israel did not stress over little everyday events, but had a great perspective and kept the important things in life a priority like health, friendships, family, and safety.

Although I was raised by two Jewish parents, my sense of a religious or cultural identity was nearly absent before going to Israel. Beyond Friday night Shabbat dinners with my cousins and Passover Seders with my extended family, being Jewish was an identity I was neither cognizant of on an everyday basis nor very proud of. Both of my parents grew up in small towns where they were one of the few Jewish families out of thousands, and I couldn’t say that my experience as a Jew was much different from theirs. This watering-down of our Jewish identity that my parents subconsciously adopted during their childhood was not intentional, yet it was passed onto their kids as well. Unfortunately it was something I subconsciously carried with me during childhood into my teenage years.

Being in Israel, there was an unspoken bond I felt with my fellow Jewish brothers and sisters, and this bond only grew as I got to know them better. I never truly questioned what was wrong with tucking this shame away growing up until I was surrounded by Jewish friends in Israel who spoke about their experiences and talked about how they came to be proud of their own Jewish identities. Some were raised in families that celebrated their Judaism, while others came to appreciate it later on, like me. That bond, along with witnessing the incredible adversity that Jewish people have undergone for thousands of years, tied my identity to what I was experiencing first-hand in Israel. Seeing the horrors of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem brought me back in time to when my great grandmother’s family fled rampant antisemitism in Poland in the 1920s by immigrating to America to pursue a better and safer life.

I was surrounded by many people who were unapologetically Jewish, and slowly my shame dissipated as I began to see my Judaism as something to be proud of rather than ashamed of. It was the first time I truly felt comfortable and open about being Jewish. Given all of the oppression that Jews have undergone throughout history, and the sacrifices people before me have made to grant Jews more freedom–most apparent to me when we visited Hal Hertz–I began to feel as though I had little to be ashamed of in being Jewish. I learned from my time in Israel through experience that to capitulate and conceal our identity would be exactly what those who have hoped for our destruction want. Given all that our people have gone through and continue to struggle with, I no longer will be silent but will be an advocate for Jews worldwide and speak openly and honestly about the State of Israel.

My time in Israel gave me a deep appreciation for Israeli culture and a better understanding of the complex nature of the Middle East. I saw signs of both advancement and regression while I was there, reminding me of how slow and complex progress truly is. Coaching and interacting with Arabs and Jews alike in Israel, visiting Jerusalem and the Golan heights, and hearing from diverse perspectives, I gained a deeper respect for Palestinians and their desire for liberation, a better understanding for different religions, and a desire for peaceful coexistence on a larger scale in the region. I look forward to making Aliyah to become a dual-citizen, to visit the country more often with my family, and hopefully to play for the National Team and represent Israel on an international level.