In a short period of time, my life has really changed. I get asked the question a lot as to what happened, and I always respond with, “You know how I went to Israel this past summer…”
I grew up in the Bible Belt, also known as Katy, Texas. Both my parents are Jewish, and my brother and I were raised culturally Jewish. Having grown up in a predominantly Christian community, most of my friends thought that being Jewish meant that I came from another planet. I, of course, thought it was so cool to be Jewish, especially because of all the perks. I mean, what kid wouldn’t want extra days off from school and an over the top party like my Bat Mitzvah. Sadly, after my Bat Mitzvah, my family and I stopped going to Synagogue, and all that we had that made us Jewish was celebrating the high holidays together.
As I entered into my adulthood and started my career as a fitness professional at 18, that became my passion, and I was determined to build a life for myself where I was financially independent and doing something I loved. When I was 23, I moved to Miami and was first exposed to other Jews outside of my Hebrew school. I was in a new city, single and ready to mingle. I dated Jews or non-Jews, but it really didn’t matter to me.
A little over a year later, I moved to New York City, and my Jewish community expanded. I even dated an Israeli for the first time. While living in New York, I had heard about Birthright Israel but never had enough interest to go and didn’t really think I was Jewish enough. After five years in NYC, I spent a year out west in Scottsdale, Arizona, and ironically the only person I dated out there was Jewish. It was the first time that I had connected with someone in a way that was different from all of my prior relationships. There was a commonality between us that I had never experienced before. It felt like home. That relationship ended as I made the decision to come back to Florida to be near my family, but I found myself in a relationship with another nice Jewish boy.
On our first date, he shared with me that he went on Birthright Israel the summer before, and it was the best thing he ever did. I was 31 and had one year left to go. He shared his experience with me in a way that was intriguing enough for me to at least look into going. We only dated a few months, but after we broke up, I decided to apply.
I was in a unique space in my life where I had the freedom and flexibility to take a trip like that, and with his encouragement and knowing this would be my last chance to go, it was now or possibly never.
So I went.
My Birthright Israel experience actually started before the plane even took off. I met two girls at the train station who were going on my trip, and we met three other people on the train also going. The six of us spent over an hour connecting on our ride, and immediately, I felt closer to my people than ever before.
Each person on my trip was truly special and special to me. On our second day, the Madrichim (trip staff) found out that I was a Yoga Instructor and asked if I would be willing to teach a class on the Kibbutz. I was honored that they asked, and I, of course, said yes! I wasn’t sure how many people would actually show up, and when I arrived that morning to teach, more than half of our group was there, on their towels ready for me to guide them through a practice. To see this group of strangers come together and share in this experience was something so magical. Even to this day, it is difficult for me to put it into words.
It wouldn’t be long before I was speechless again while on Birthright Israel. My experience climbing Masada was by in large a life-altering event for me. Something you need to know is that I have developed an extreme fear of heights. I was certain that this was a part of the trip I would skip because there was NO WAY I was going up to Masada. The night before, I received a message from my dad, and it said this: “Try to feel every emotion, even some that don’t make you feel so good, because nothing is permanent. Everything passes. Climb Masada and try and feel what those people sacrificed there and then on to the next. Love you Sweetie. Have fun!!!”
Those words gave me enough courage to squeeze my staff leader’s hand all the way up, one step at a time until we reached the top together. I let go of her hand as soon as I reached the last step, and a flood of emotions came over me as I broke into a hysterical cry. She handed me her phone and said: “Call your dad.”
Since returning from my trip, I have taken many scary leaps like making a pretty significant career change, and that is probably not something that would have happened if I didn’t go to Israel. Being there solidified my want and need to be Jewish and helped me redefine what that means to me, but it also helped me find myself again. While I was over there, I had many thoughts about how I wanted to do more with my life and make a bigger impact on the world. Not only did Birthright Israel help me find my Jewish Identity, but it allowed for me to remove the identity strains I had put on myself, which held me back from being whoever I wanted to be. I am forever grateful for this experience, and I will continue to share my story in hopes that others will take advantage of this incredible gift. Most of all, as well as make sure the trips continue to get funded so that Birthright Israel is available for my children and future generations.