How Birthright Changed My Life

If someone asked me if I was Jewish, up until a few months ago, I would have said:

     “No, but I am Jew-ish.

I said this, in part, because I knew it would get a laugh out of whoever I was talking to. However, I have to admit that there was a large part of me that saw this as true. My father is Jewish and my mother is not. I didn’t grow up with my father, so I was not raised Jewish. The little exposure I did have to the Jewish religion came once or twice a year when my visits with my grandparents coincided with a holiday. I didn’t have a Hebrew name, I never had a Bat Mitzvah, and I even celebrated Christmas. How could I possibly call myself Jewish?

It wasn’t until my Freshman year of college that I even understood being “Jewish” could mean more than prescribing to a religion. I took a Jewish studies class my first semester and it blew my mind when the professor explained that the Jews are actually an ethnic and cultural group as well as a religious one. The same semester, I took a Hebrew language class and the professor worked to convince me every day that I was indeed, Jewish.

I began to question who I was. I was definitely “Jew-ish,” but could I be Jewish? I felt like, if I identified with this group, I was faking. I hadn’t earned my Jewish-ness like my peers who had gone to Hebrew school, celebrated every holiday, and been raised with a specific value system. I felt uncomfortable going to Hillel or anything having to do with Jewish life on campus. I felt like everyone would just know I was a pretender.

This all changed when I went on a Birthright trip to Israel the summer after my Sophomore year. I never expected this to change me or really be all that meaningful. I just wanted to go on a free trip to another country. Unexpectedly, I came out of the trip with a renewed sense of identity and, even more shockingly, I had decided to move to Israel when I graduate in two years. Birthright taught me a lot about myself. Now, my life is on a completely different course than it was. Here are just a few of the ways Birthright changed my life:

 

1. I learned to take ownership of my Jewish identity

This was the biggest takeaway from Birthright for me. I am Jewish. I can say that with absolute confidence. I was born Jewish and, even though I don’t identify with any organized religion, I am not less Jewish than anyone else. On Birthright, I met Israelis who did not identify with the Jewish religion, but still saw themselves as Jewish. Talking to them and other people on my trip who were completely accepting of my background, showed me that this is a world that I do belong to.

Since going on Birthright, I have made Shabbat services and dinner part of every week. I go to Hillel regularly and I have made so many friends I never would have met otherwise. Don’t get me wrong; I am still trying to catch up on 19 years of lost time, but I have started to actively learn what my Jewish identity means for me.  I am trying to work out what parts of Jewish culture hold the most meaning for me and that is truly exciting.

2. I decided to get my Master’s degree

My whole life, I had been set on being a performer. Up until Birthright, I was a Theatre and Music double major. Being in Israel and seeing the place that was a result of the tragedies of the Holocaust, really made me evaluate what I wanted to do with my life. I had been interested in studying the Holocaust for a few years, but I never thought about it as something that I wanted to dedicate my life to. Experiencing Israel changed that for me.

When I got back to school this fall, I dropped my music major and added a Jewish Studies major instead. In my studies, I am now focusing on the way the Holocaust is portrayed in mass media (films, TV, plays, etc.). After I graduate, I will be moving to Israel to get my Master’s degree in Holocaust Studies. This work, to me, feels extremely meaningful and has brought a renewed sense of purpose to my life.

3. I realized how much I valued community

Being in Israel was surreal for me because I had never been around that many Jewish people before. Growing up, I knew one or two other Jewish kids. It was crazy for me to be in Israel and know that I have something in common with three quarters of the population. No matter what your unique background is, you would never truly be foreign to anyone in the country. This sense of unification and community was just beautiful to see and it was something that I really wanted to become a part of. 

4. I discovered that I wanted to marry Jewish

If you had told me this a year ago, I probably would have laughed. I had never limited myself on who I dated before. At the time that I left for Birthright, I was actually in a long-term relationship with someone who was not Jewish.

Let me just first say, that I completely respect everyone’s decision about who they want to marry. This is an individual choice that is specific to each person. The reason I made this decision is simple. Six million Jews died in the Holocaust. I never really thought about what that meant until I went on Birthright. I feel a sense of responsibility to have Jewish children for this reason. It is especially crucial for me to marry someone Jewish, since I am only half-Jewish. This has become something that is very important to me. 

5. I became dedicated to learning Hebrew

Before I left for Birthright, I had weekly Hebrew tutoring with the Israeli Fellow at Hillel. However, I did it more for fun and did not take it as seriously as I should have. Now, I work on Hebrew everyday with the Duolingo app and I take my tutoring sessions with the Israeli Fellow very seriously. I am absolutely determined to at least become proficient before I go to Israel in 2018. 

6. I basically gained 40 new members to my family

If you have ever gone on Birthright, you know how close you become with the other people on your trip. You share a unique experience with them and that creates a bond that will last forever. The Israelis on your trip become like regular members of the group, so you become close to them as well. It was really sad to leave everyone at the end of the trip, especially since only a few members of the group go to the same school as me. However, I still keep in contact with people from the group (especially one very special Israeli), and I know that if I ever need to talk to any of them, they are just a text away.

7. I realized I needed to find a way to go back

I basically made it my mission to get back to Israel after coming home. Even though I had missed almost every deadline, I found a way to study abroad in Tel Aviv for the upcoming spring semester. I will be taking Jewish Studies classes and well as a Hebrew language intensive called an “Ulpan.” I am beyond excited to learn and finally be immersed in the Israeli culture for more than just 10 days. Most importantly though, I really just want to be able to eat some real falafel and hummus.