As someone who has been in love with soccer since I was three or four years old, and in love with Israel since I was probably six or seven, making Aliya with Nefesh B’Nefesh after competing in the 17th and 18th Maccabiah Games has certainly been among the most rewarding and fulfilling experiences of my life.

My name is Genna Brand and I’m from Virginia Beach, Virginia, USA – a small beach town with a very tight-knit community. I’m 24, and have been playing soccer for more than two decades now. I have grown so much as a person from everything the sport has taught me throughout my life. I’m still learning things, soccer is still teaching me things everyday about myself and other people.

Whether it is lessons of interpersonal communication, teamwork, understanding others, among the many, all of these values come out on the field, in practices and games. I grew up playing a few other sports as well, but soccer for some reason always caught my attention, I always wanted to go back to soccer. There was a certain push-and-pull I felt between a number of different sports in high school, but at a certain point, I just decided that I wanted to focus all of my energy and all of my time into soccer. I always knew that I wanted to go play Division 1 Soccer in college.

Once I made that decision at a relatively young age, I knew what I had to do to make it happen. I talked to girls older than me, I had role models that I played club soccer with and I was constantly asking them what I can do, what I should do, what’s the best route to reach my goal?

After graduating high school, I was thrilled when I got the chance to actualize my dream and go play soccer at Ohio State University. My parents always raised me, my brother and my sister with strong Jewish roots. Since early childhood, we always had strong ties with Judaism and with Israel, my grandparents traveled there all the time, and growing up there was just a really strong tradition between the culture, the religion, and the state of Israel. We grew up in a very Zionist, loving family, and the first time I was in Israel with my whole family was as a 6-year-old, on a community mission. I don’t really remember much of that trip other than being at Ein Gedi standing under a waterfall and telling my mom “this is where I want to get married whenever I find my husband.” (That vision is still on my short-term bucket-list.)

In truth, though, I think the first time I really thought about moving to Israel and making a life for myself here was after my first Maccabiah, the 17th edition of the Games in 2005. At that point, I was 16 years old, and it was the first organized trip in which I came without my family at an age that was perfect for me to learn so much and take it in. I came with a group of other American kids – some were a little “less Jewish” than I was, some were more, some were “on my level,” for lack of a better term. While it really made a huge impact on me, I think the 18th Games – in 2009 - was what really, really did it for me. It was just a completely different experience. For some reason a lot of the people I was traveling around with during the 18th Maccabiah had never been to Israel before.

It was just very eye-opening for me to see the country through eyes of others, and to be experiencing the country with people who didn’t have the strongest Jewish roots, but nonetheless it made such an impression on them. It just opened my eyes to how lucky I was to have been able to have these amazing times with my parents and my family, and learn so much and to have such a strong bond with the country and the culture.

It is difficult for me to put that extremely spiritual sensation into the best words, I guess, but it was just a time when I felt such a passion for the country and my sport. The combination of both of my loves just really shined through for the first time and I was able to share that and connect with so many people from all over the world.

While the Maccabiah is an unbelievable sporting event, I think a lot of what makes it so supremely special has to do with Jewish unification and meeting people from all over the world who share enormous mutual interests, namely a passion for the game and a love for Israel.

At the end of the day, you train for a little bit, you’re there to see the country and to experience amazing things for the first time or for the sixth time. However, once I got into that zone of competition, like any good athlete I was there to win and not only to have a great experience with my friends but to bring home a gold medal, which I was fortunate to accomplish on two different occasions. I guess it’s just in my blood, but when I get out onto the soccer pitch, all of the other things in my mind go out the window.

It becomes about just playing the game that I love, and once the competitive juices start flowing, I’m on a whole other high. In my mind – and I imagine lots of you can relate to this – I was there to beat everyone else and to be the best player I could be to help my team triumph. That is what sports is all about, in addition to all the other amazing aspects.

Looking back at my two Maccabiah experiences, I think the first time I was a little immature then, just having a great time, going to all the clubs and the bars and saying “wow, the lifestyle is so amazing here but…” I found myself thinking along the lines of “these Israelis are so rude; why they are always in a rush? Can’t they just relax, take it easy, you know?” Coming from a beach town where I grew up, everything was very easy-going and no one is in a rush, and just pretty chill. A little bit different than the typical Israeli lifestyle, wouldn’t you say? But by the time I was here for the 18th Games I was a little bit older (20), I had a better idea of who I was and who I wanted to be. I was in college then and I was in the process of trying to figure out what I wanted to do “when I grew up,” if I wanted to go to grad school or if I wanted to travel a little bit.

When Nefesh B'Nefesh and others approached me at both the 17th and 18th games to stay in Israel and make Aliya immediately, I said “No, I’m playing Division 1 soccer, that is the dream in my life right now and I want to fulfill that.” However, when I was here for the 18th Games, something inside me happened and I had a very strong spiritual bond with the people and the culture in Israel. Something just clicked in me and it hit me so close to home. I felt like I was meant to come back here, that I wasn’t done. For some reason, I felt this void when I got back to the States from being away from Israel. I needed to come back and explore that void. After I graduated college in 2011, I immediately turned my attention to the possibility of making Aliya. I stayed after in Ohio for a few months to work, I came home and then within 11 or 12 days of being back in Virginia I moved to Israel.

Let me state as clearly as possible that I wouldn’t be here without Nefesh B’Nefesh, to say the least! They were incredible in guiding me through the whole process. Nefesh B’Nefesh handled all the paperwork for me, and made the entire move a seamless as possible. I did the NBN group flight, in which they take up the majority of the airplane, and I think that was a great idea and an interesting introduction to my new life. I got to meet people from all over, all walks of life, all ages, families, singles, young married couples who were all doing the same exact thing I was doing – making Aliya. It was wonderful to talk to them and hear about their experience and why they decided to make Aliya and forever I will think of my Nefesh B’Nefesh Aliya partners as a part of my extended Israeli family.

Currently, I am having the time of my life - and the opportunity I have to partake in one of my greatest passions, the love of the game in the country I cherish and have such a bond with is a dream. I couldn’t have written it any better. Playing for ASA Tel Aviv, the two-time defending women’s soccer league champions has been wonderful. We just won in May so we’re going to Champions League in Europe over the first or second week in August. Basically, when you win the cup in Israel you get a pat on the shoulder and a really cool trophy. But when you win the league, you get to represent Israel and play against other club teams throughout Europe. Last year we went to Bosnia, and this year we will be finding out at the end of the month where we will be going. So I’m pretty excited about that, and to start practicing again.

We’ve had a little bit of a break since May, which has been nice. I also decided to get my Masters in Political Science at Tel Aviv University.

It’s a one-year program, an international program in English, and it’s been amazing. I wasn’t so sure I wanted to go back to school after Ohio State but now I’m one month short of graduating in August, and I am so happy I ended up doing this. It’s an amazing program, an amazing institution, my professors are so brilliant and my friends and classmate are all so great. In short, I wouldn’t want to be living my life in any other way than exactly what I’ve been doing since I landed here in Israel. That is a special, inner-peace feeling that I hope will continue indefinitely. Upon graduation in August, I hope to pursue a career in Israel where I will be able to utilize my educational background in Communications, Marketing, and Social Policy. But most importantly I’m just trying to live in the moment and take this life of mine moment by moment and be a part of the vibrancy of Israel.

It is really important for me to try to soak it all in, because one thing I’ve learned from people in this country is that it’s not so much that they’re in a rush all the time, they wear their hearts on their sleeves, and they take every chance they get to see their loved ones. Israel is so real and all of its citizens really live in the moment, by choice or by necessity. For anyone coming to this country, I would implore them to learn how to live in the moment. It is something to really cherish and I think it’s a lifelong journey to try to understand what the simple statement means. I believe I’m on my way!

When I try to think of the message I want to impart to all the participants of this 19th Maccabiah Games, I am torn between so many different thoughts. Everyone says “have fun and win” but I think it goes beyond that. Whatever your Jewish ties are, whether you’ve had them all your life, or you’re just discovering them now, this is a perfect time and environment to figure out what Israel means to you. It’s a place in which anyone can have so much fun and it’s also so magical at the same time.

The country – and your connection to it – can teach you so much about yourself and your heritage and it is important to just to soak it all in. Even if you’re exhausted from traveling and exhausted from waking up in the morning and practicing, just take in as much of it as you can. Get to know people from all walks of life because you never know who you’re going to bump into or where you’re going to run into them years from now.

That is the message I would settle on: Just soak it all in, live in the moment, enjoy every second you can here. Israel is an enchanting place and the Maccabiah is such a spectacular event, so make memories of a lifetime just have an unbelievable time. After all, how can you possibly not!?


For more information on Aliya, please visit the Nefesh B'Nefesh website at www.nbn.org.il

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