How One Young Chicagoan is Maintaining Her Connection to Judaism

A majority of Jewish children dream of Israel while growing up. More importantly, their Birthright trip to Israel. They idealize the people, culture and country until that simple dream finally becomes a reality, typically when they turn 18. Birthright Israel is a non-for-profit organization which gives Jewish-identifying individuals from the ages of 18 to 32 the opportunity to visit the country of Israel.

“It’s all about your connections to our different Jewish rituals and different concepts,” Hannah Bloomberg said. Bloomberg is a Senior Jewish Life Associate for Loyola University and Metro Chicago Hillel, an organization devoted to improving Jewish community on college campuses and in the Chicago area.

“It’s really cool because students have the opportunity to travel all around Israel to learn both from a cultural and historical perspective,” she said.

Samantha Sylverne, a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was finally given her chance to go on her Birthright trip during the winter of 2018. Sylverne spent 10 days in Israel with about 50 other students all from around the Chicago area. They had the opportunity to visit Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the Negev desert while learning about the Jewish and cultural ties to each historical site.

“I’ve known about [Birthright Israel] ever since I was a little kid, it’s something that I’ve looked forward to since I was maybe 8 or 9 years old,” Sylverne said. “I was fascinated by the connections the trip exposed about my religion and community. This is a sort of coming-of-age thing in the community and no one really wants to miss out on it.”

Growing up, Sylverne said she struggled to maintain a relationship with her religion. Her family was not particularly religious, but Sylverne had an increasing interest in her Jewish identity. As a result, Sylverne’s mother encouraged her to attend religion school, where she learned about Judaism and Hebrew on the weekends in a local synagogue.Sylverne said this allowed her to gain a connection and identity within her religion. As she grew older, however, this deep connection she felt began to fade away after her bat mitzvah, a coming-of-age ritual for Jewish girls around the age of 13.

“There’s not a lot of teen programming for Jewish people after their bar and bat mitzvahs and between their Birthright trip,” Sylverne said. “There just isn’t many opportunities to be connected to the community, and because Judaism is a community-based religion, it’s easy to lose touch with your religion once you stop feeling a connection with the community. It’s hard to stay connected and I think that’s what happened to me.”

After the struggle of trying to find a sense of belonging and religiosity, Sylverne said she was able to reaffirm her Jewish identity within the community when she came to college, allowing her to feel as if she found a place to belong to once again.

“I didn’t really fit in any sort of circles in college unless it was a Jewish one,” Sylverne said. “I didn’t really know where to look until I met a friend in a class who was also Jewish, and he started dragging me to Hillel events. And then I found my way back into the community and my way to being a religious person again just because I was reminded of everything that I had lost and how much I loved it.”

With her renewed relationship with Judaism, Sylverne said she was finally ready to go on her Birthright trip with a new perspective and appreciation. She was ready to not only begin a new adventure but to continue embracing her religion and connections to Israel through this trip.

“To get to Jerusalem you have to drive through this dark tunnel and our tour guide was counting down the seconds until we got through,” Sylverne said. “The moment I saw it I just started crying because that was really the place where I felt the most connected to. It feels as ideal as I thought it would be as a child and it was a very magical moment.”

Birthright Israel is unique to Judaism and can be a powerful immersive experience for participants. People like Sylverne are left with newfound motivations to continue their beliefs and drives to continue on their journey of Judaism. 

“We [Jews] always have a desire to go back  [to Israel]. For a lot of people it’s a part of their redemption,” Mor Homri said. Homri is a Senior Jewish Life Associate for DePaul University and Metro Chicago Hillel. “We’ve been hunted for years and now we finally have our own safe haven. When you go through a struggle you must see the light at the end of the tunnel and for a lot of people Jerusalem is that, Israel is that.”

To check out what a Birthright trip might look like, click here.