Over the last few years, Birthright Israel and Birthright Israel Foundation have become dear to my heart. This is in large part due to Margie Honickman who many in the Philadelphia area know and love. Margie sits on the Board of Directors and is the Philadelphia Leadership Council Co-Chair for the Foundation too. Before I began working for her, I had never heard of Birthright Israel.
So, at 26, I never dreamt I’d have the chance to travel to Israel. At this point in my life, I didn’t have a strong connection to religion of any kind. My mother was raised Jewish, as were both of her parents going back generations on each side. My father on the other hand, was raised in a rural village in the Philippines, a country with a 90% Christian population.
In fact, when my mom met my dad, he had a picture of Jesus in his wallet and wore a cross necklace.
Consequently, the Jewish traditions that my mother grew up with fell to the wayside. As a compromise, the same went for my father’s. Winter holidays during school were always a bit confusing for me. I would hesitate when asked the seemingly straightforward questions, “What holiday do you celebrate?”
I’d shrug my shoulders and answer, “Both?”
My sense of community during this time came from my Quaker school, immediate family, and friends, but never from my faith. I’d always wanted to feel a part of the traditions and culture that my mother grew up with, as well as her mother. My grandmother, or my mom mom as I call her, is the only living grandparent I’ve ever had. I am also her only grandchild.
As for my mother’s father, he died not long before I was born, at which time much of my mother and grandmother’s connection to Judaism faded away.
Saying “Yes” to Birthright Israel
At this point in my life, when Margie asked if I would be interested in going on a Birthright Israel trip, I said yes. I had no clue the Judaism that faded away for my family would be brought back into my life.
Since I didn’t have a connection to my faith the first thing I said to Margie was, “Am I eligible? Do you realize I wasn’t Bat Mitzvah’d? Or that I have never attended Shabbat services? That I can’t read Hebrew – or that I’m not a real Jew?” Before going on the trip, I was worried that I would feel uncomfortable and out of place with the other participants.
This feeling, of being an outsider in the Jewish community, fell away the very moment I stepped off the plane at Ben-Gurion Airport, 5,653 miles away from JFK.
I found that this theme of community perpetuated throughout the trip. This was especially true towards the end when we had to part ways with the Israeli soldiers that we’d all grown to so close to. One of them, Nadav, shared with everyone that he now realized after meeting us Americans that he is defending Israel not only for himself and his immediate community but for each one of us as well.
“Israel is mine, it is yours, it is ours,” he said. It was at that moment that I had my own realization: Birthright Israel had not only taught me about my heritage, but it illuminated the connection that all Jews share and the legacy that we all must carry forth. I learned that being Jewish is so much more than religion – it’s a shared ancestry, land, and awe-inspiring community.
Finding My Jewish Community
When I returned to Philadelphia, I felt more confident in my identity as a Jew and more comfortable speaking about my faith. It led me to realize that I had a newfound connection with my grandmother that was previously unexplored. We talked for hours about my Birthright Israel trip and she shared memories with me that I had never heard before. I told her about all I saw and experienced in Israel. After this, she found and dusted off her Shabbat candles.
Today, thanks to inspiration from Birthright Israel, I have created many more memories with my 98-year-old grandmother around the Shabbat table that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
Reflecting back on my journey to Israel I feel deeply grateful that I, along with my peers both American and Israeli, had the chance to share such a meaningful adventure. The trip sparked important conversations and forged deep connections that will undoubtedly strengthen the future of Jewish communities everywhere. And my experience is only one of over 750,000 Birthright Israel participants – the impact of this program is immeasurable. For anyone who has gone on Birthright Israel, I think it’s safe to say, we can all appreciate the struggle our people endured for us, and that we are empowered to know firsthand a land that will always welcome us with an open heart and open arms.
Because of this, I finally felt connected, fully–not halfway–and that I belonged to the Jewish people.