Laura Fenton is originally from Memphis, TN. She thought she'd never make it to the land…
There are many different reasons to go on Birthright Israel. However, to me, they are all secondary to the honest answer: it’s a free trip to Israel! My father always told me nothing in this world comes completely free, so I figured there was a sales pitch coming my way. I was a half-Jewish free agent of the religious world. This trip was clearly designed, I assumed, to convince people like me to be “more Jewish.” Well, it happened. I drank the Kool-Aid. You know what also happened? I am much happier than I have ever been in my life. To frame how amazing that statement is, let me give you some context.
Battling Anxiety & Depression
I have battled with depression and anxiety since entering adulthood. Yet, even in my darkest days I always believed it was a matter of time before things got better. I kept searching for new unknown variables that could reduce my mental, emotional, and physical pain. One night in June 2019, I hit a breaking point of sustained hopelessness and realized a drastic change needed to be made to stop the seven-year downward spiral. So, I called family and friends to open up about my mental health. Twelve hours later I walked into my manager’s office and handed him my resignation letter. Two weeks later I was in a car leaving my life behind in Chicago to move in with my parents in Maryland. I didn’t have a contingency plan or any idea what came next, but I knew I had to stop wandering aimlessly and look at the map if I wanted to find my way out of the metaphorical forest.
For six months, my depression worsened each week I was in Maryland. I regressed to the point I was emotionally unrecognizable, swept under a wave of mental health woes.
Although it was great being with family, I felt isolated and disconnected from the rest of the world. The moments I had enough energy to leave my bed were increasingly rare, though I did jump up with excitement whenever I had the opportunity to spend time with my 1-year-old nephew down the road. Seeing him smile and laugh was the brightest light that raised my spirit each week. I have never cared more about anyone or anything in my life than I do that kid. All the pain was worth it to be a part of his life, and he became the first new variable that sustainably took away my pain.
And My Free Trip to Israel Begins
Then came the long-awaited free trip to Israel. As any depressed person does, I didn’t start shopping and packing until a few hours before the flight. Running 45 minutes late for check-in, I got into the car sweating profusely with an anxiety attack. Still, I walked into the airport like I owned the place. I showed the outside world the version of myself that is on my resume, not the one I see in the mirror. From that point forward a miracle happened. It was something I had never experienced in my life. Over the next 10 days, those two versions of myself gradually became one. The gap was closing between what the rational and emotional parts of my brain were telling me to believe.
My two older brothers had each taken advantage of this free trip to Israel years before me without any interest in religious practice. The eldest went with his college girlfriend, and the trip strengthened their spiritual bond. They are now six years into a very happy marriage and raising my nephew Jewish. My middle brother had his Bar Mitzvah on his trip and came back with a newfound connection to Judaism. Before mine, I told people that there was very little chance I’d come back with any different religious standing, but I might do the Bar Mitzvah to have a fun story to tell friends.
Oh, how wrong I was to think that way. I quickly came to realize how disrespectful it was of me to consider using such an important ceremony as a souvenir with a false commitment. Nevertheless, I still joined the informational sessions with our trip’s rabbi to better understand the process. I figured there was no harm in gathering information, regardless of how unlikely I thought it was that I would be able to commit to Judaism in a matter of 10 days.
Becoming a Bar Mitzvah
Throughout the trip I continued learning, discussing, and reflecting on the decision to have my Bar Mitzvah, but I had plenty of concerns holding me back. First of all, I was supposed to give a Bar Mitzvah speech on what Judaism means to me, but I didn’t have an honest answer yet. I was also afraid of letting my Christian mother down. Most of all, I feared that I was succumbing to the grandeur of Israel, but I wouldn’t be willing to truly commit to Judaism once I returned to reality. These concerns all lingered throughout the trip’s first week. Then at 5:00 AM on Day 8, I woke up in the Bedouin tents with an unusual burst of energy. We hiked Masada and breathed in the fresh air at daybreak. We listened to stories about our Jewish ancestors going out by their own volition instead of letting anyone else choose their fate. I felt cleansed, enlightened, and empowered. On the bus ride from Masada to Jerusalem, I reflected while everyone else slept. In case I decided to go through with my Bar Mitzvah, I started writing out potential topics to discuss. A lightbulb went on in my head. This choice was not going to be just another one in my life that I put off with anxious indecision. I felt the strength to take full control of my own narrative for the first time in my life and to think this all stemmed from a free trip to Israel.
Visiting the Western Wall and Jerusalem
We spent Day 9 in the Old City and had 20 minutes at the Western Wall. As I approached it slowly, not knowing what to do or whether I was even worthy of taking up space next to the devout individuals beside me. I stood a couple feet from the wall and closed my eyes. I reflected on the trip and how it fits into the context of my life. After a while, I tried a prayer even though it always felt awkward to use the term “God” without also putting up air quotes to show that my conception of the divine is difficult to sum up with a three-letter word.
As I stumbled through different thoughts and prayers, the words in my head started to slowly fall into rhythm. My body inched towards the wall as I gently rocked back and forth. That cadence gradually sped up as I let go of the physical world around me and let my conscience take control. The frantic and uncontrollable thoughts that caused much of my mental strife converged into a single powerful voice. The cadence continued to rapidly speed up as my body and mind were drawn closer to the wall. My inner voice spoke the words “God, please guide me with the tools and strength to be the person I want to be and am meant to be.” At that moment, my forehead and hands fell into the wall as the voice stopped. Everything slowed down. I stood there, connected with something greater than myself.
Control over my thoughts returned, but I was unable to move or open my eyes. The powerful choir-like voice of my conscience turned into a reflective solo acapella. A new conception of my best self became apparent, and a new narrative outline began to form. As the solo faded, a bird flew into a bush a few feet above my head and voiced a single chirp. I opened my eyes, stepped back five paces, and turned around as a calm feeling washed over me.
The Bar Mitzvah Ceremony
We then immediately headed over to Robinson’s Arch, a designated group meeting space behind the wall, where we would hold the B’Nai Mitzvah ceremonies. My time to speak came, and the message was clearer than it ever had been. I started off by discussing how I’ve always struggled with understanding my identity, especially as a half-Jew. I’ve been bullied and excluded throughout my life because Christians see me as an outsider, and Jews didn’t see me as part of the tribe because my mother wasn’t Jewish. I told the group how this was one of many factors leading to seven years of depression and anxiety issues. It was the first time I opened up about my mental health on the trip, and everyone understandably looked surprised since they had only seen the charismatic version of myself that I wanted them to see.
Secondly, I also opened up about hitting a low point six months prior and leaving my life behind to let my family try to fix me. Back then, I would never have thought that the family to restore my happiness would be a new one I met halfway around the world. I’ve focused this story on my personal journey, but I cannot begin to express how much I owe to my 48 companions on the trip. Every day felt like a year of relationships developed, and we definitely shared a decade’s worth of meaningful conversations, uncontrollable laughter, and loving support. They will always be my second family, and I will always feel closely bonded to them.
Becoming A Proud Jew
Not only did this free trip to Israel connect me to the Jewish community, but it opened my eyes for the first time to earnestly learn about Jewish beliefs, culture, and traditions. What I once assumed was an antiquated religion, I now see for its long history of perseverance, progression, and universal wisdom. Birthright Israel also led me to a new life perspective. Because of this experience, I no longer define myself first by my depression or label myself as an “other.” I walked away from Israel as a proud Jewish man with a long, bright future ahead of me.
Now, I am living that committed Jewish life back in reality. In addition to reading books and doing research on Judaism, I have taken every opportunity I can find to expand my Jewish family. I joined a Jewish mindful masculinity discussion group, hosted my first ever Shabbat, and organized weekly virtual Shabbat happy hours for my Birthright Israel group. I regularly attend sessions hosted by GatherDC to learn and connect with other Jews, and GatherDC even made me their Jew of the Week in mid-March.
Facing a New Normal
When the world finds a new normal after the COVID-19 pandemic settles down, I also hope to become a Birthright Israel trip leader and get involved with the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s Young Leadership team. Last, but certainly not least, a purely platonic Birthright Israel friendship turned into a blossoming romantic relationship a couple months after the trip. Suffice to say, my previous Judaism commitment concern has not been an issue thus far.
Due to COVID-19, we are currently living in a quarantined world injected with high levels of insecurity and anxiety. However, I see my future with more certainty than ever before. Social-distancing has caused historically high numbers of people feeling isolated and depressed, but I feel more connected and truly happier than I ever have. An unprecedented global crisis may be all around me, but my internal crisis is gone for the foreseeable future.
Birthright Israel came at the exact right moment that I needed it. I signed up for this free trip to Israel and I arrived in a state of internal crisis, yet I was defiantly guarded against being convinced to think or live differently. I left Israel with a new sense of self-value, in full control of my narrative, and guided by a structured community that enables me to learn more about myself and contribute to Tikkun Olam (repairing the world). I’ve learned how to be skeptical but also willing to let myself go and reflect afterward. When I appreciate the details and focus on the process, I know that understanding the big picture and seeing the results will come in time.
Everyone’s journey is different, and my story may very well be unique, but I’ve seen the possibility of what Birthright Israel can do for a person. This is a free trip to Israel that could change your life. If that isn’t a good enough sales pitch for Birthright Israel, I don’t know what is.