Laura Fenton is originally from Memphis, TN. She thought she'd never make it to the land…
Assimilation. A word we hear so often in the Jewish world. It’s a tragedy not quite as obvious as the many others that have plagued the Jewish people before. If you grew up Jewish, unlike me, you have likely not felt the sting of assimilation or been able to comprehend what that entails fully. Who would you be if you never learned what it meant to be Jewish?
So, let me tell you my story and my family’s story, one of assimilation and American identity that isn’t just unique to me but to countless others and how an investment in Birthright Israel Foundation saved this Jewish family from near extinction.
My great-great-grandparents immigrated to America a very long time ago, from Russia. My great grandparents raised my grandfather as a secular Jew. And by the time my maternal grandparents gave birth to my mother, our Jewish heritage had begun collecting dust. My mother eventually married my Christian father…which would then change the outcome of my life and leave me wandering in what felt like a lost cloud of identity for nearly twenty years.
The search for identity is a unique phenomenon. You can’t touch it or see it, yet you may spend your entire life searching for it. Some are born with a colorful tapestry, and others are left with a blank canvas. I was never great with decisions, and at twenty years old, that blank canvas was as daunting as it was stark.
Then, I went on Birthright Israel. It was everything it was chalked up to be, and yes, it changed my life, more so than any words could ever describe, but we can save the big details for later. One of the significant turning points on my trip was experiencing the mystical city of Tzfat. It was here I will forever recall the impactful words of Avraham Lowenthal, a local artist:
“By setting foot in Israel, you are realizing a dream! It may not be your dream, but your ancestors’ dream. You may be the first person in your family to have set foot in Israel in the last 2,000 years! Thousands of years of prayers have landed you here.”
I was the first member of my family to reach Israel. Chills ran down my spine. After wandering for twenty years, I realized I was no longer lost. I knew that by coming to Israel, I was also bringing my family to Israel, not physically but spiritually. For all the years, our Jewish identity was tucked away – it was now found.
While I may have slowly lost touch with my Jewish connection, my soul didn’t. Experiencing Israel awakened something within me, something within me that can never sleep again. My children, my children’s children, and so on, will know what it means to be Jewish.
Since I returned from Birthright Israel, I have organized Shabbat dinners for my family on multiple occasions. A tradition that has now begun in my mom’s household on a bi-weekly basis. It’s not perfect, but it brings us together in a way that we had forgotten we so desperately needed. We even celebrated Hanukkah for the very first time. Seeing the spiritual connection, I found in Israel seep into my family has been one of the greatest blessings of all. What’s even better, my mother is connecting with her own unexplored Jewish identity, something she hadn’t been given the resources to do until now.
The investment made in Birthright Israel Foundation didn’t just give me the gift of Israel and a Jewish identity. Still, most of all, it relit the embers of Judaism in a family that was only moments from complete assimilation.