You may have heard us say this before: Birthright Israel is strengthening the Jewish future. But…
The easiest way to get someone to disappear is to make them feel ashamed of who they are. And the best way to combat hate is actually with pride. I understand both things as a Jew and a person of color.
I grew up in the projects of Brooklyn, NY, to a dark-skinned Jamaican father and an Ashkenazi mother — so I like to think of myself as a “Jewmaican.” I would get made fun of a lot. When kids in my neighborhood found out I was Jewish, they would make fun of me. It was a vicious cycle. However, despite being bullied for being Jewish, my mom wanted to make sure I had a connection to my Jewish heritage, so off to the Jewish summer camp I went. When I would get to camp, no one would believe I was Jewish because of the color of my skin. They’d badger me, “how are you Jewish again?” Whether in Brooklyn or at camp — I was constantly getting questioned about who I was.
And the questioning never ended. It constantly felt like I was the brown Jew everywhere I went. So as I got older, I said, “I’m done with all of this.” Like so many of my peers, when I became a Bar Mitzvah, I treated it as my graduation from Judaism. I quickly learned that although I couldn’t hide the fact I was brown, I could hide the fact I was Jewish. In my social circles as a teenager, I tried to avoid the question of Judaism if at all possible. If asked, I wouldn’t deny the fact, but I certainly didn’t bring it up.
It All Started at Shabbat
Then I went to college. I ran into a friend from Jewish summer camp, and she was so excited to invite me to Shabbat. I immediately said no, they’ll never think I’m Jewish enough. Of course, she said, “but there is free food.” Instantly, I was sold. I went to this Shabbat dinner expecting to be questioned about my Judaism as I did throughout my childhood, and to my shock, I wasn’t. To my fellow Jews at this Shabbat dinner, I was simply Arel.
I got close to the Rabbi, who kept telling me about this free trip to Israel. He would encourage me to go every time I saw him. I would consistently tell him no. Why would I want to go somewhere where people are getting murdered, and there is a war? I told the Rabbi that I would go if he could get my older brother to go, who was also attending the same college as me. My brother was also not connected to his Jewish identity and was a big party animal. Once he heard about Birthright Israel, he realized we could party on someone else’s dime. So, we spoke to the Rabbi about signing up for the trip.
I remember being very nervous. I thought Israeli security would arrest me when I got off the plane in Israel because they wouldn’t believe I was Jewish. They didn’t, and stepping foot in Israel was surreal. I started speaking to other people on the bus, and even though we didn’t look alike, we had shared values and similar experiences.
One day, my group was walking through the shuk in Jerusalem, and I saw another brown Jew. I am beyond excited. I ran up to him. This other brown Jew was an Israeli soldier my age. I start to scream with excitement, “I am so excited to see you.” This soldier couldn’t understand why I was so excited to meet him, and I explained I had never met another brown Jew before. He was baffled and said, “in Israel, there is no such thing as brown Jew or Jew; there is just Jewish.” I remember that thought hit me, and for the first time, I thought I didn’t have to put a qualifier in front of my identity; I could be Jewish.
As I touched the Kotel that night, I realized all of the history we, as the Jewish people, have. For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel different and realized I should be proud of who I am, a Jew. If I can recall correctly, I am pretty sure I yelled out, “I love being Jewish,” and then a man across the way yelled out, “I also love being Jewish.” And nearly two decades later, that moment is still with me.
While on Birthright Israel, my brother and I promised each other we would make Judaism an important part of our lives. We tried several different things like wrapping tefillin, keeping kosher, and celebrating the holidays. Today, my brother is a rabbi and even lived in Israel for a while. We both even married Jewish women and send our kids to Jewish day school. Judaism is not something I do. It is who I am. It is in every fiber of my being because Birthright Israel helped me realize I am proud to be Jewish.
I believe that Jewish pride is every single Jewish person’s birthright. I think that Birthright Israel and Birthright Israel Foundation are key drivers in creating Jewish pride. When you donate to Birthright Israel Foundation, you have to ask yourself, “how much Jewish pride do I want to be responsible for?” Every dollar creates Jewish pride. I am what happens to your investment years down the line. I am that Jewish pride that you invested in. My kids are that Jewish pride you invested in. I know that together, we can continue to help more Jews feel proud of who they are, thanks to this incredible program.