The first time I traveled to Israel was when I was fourteen and then most recently…
Birthright Israel culturally changed my life. I can imagine many other young Jews in America, who are secular, feel the same. The 10-days I spent on the trip showed me there is another home for me and that I can be accepted. Birthright Israel helps you to create your own definition of what it means to be Jewish. And for someone like me, this was crucial.
I lost the desire to follow Judaism after my Bar Mitzvah. Growing up, I was surrounded by great Jewish experiences to connect to my heritage. I was born in New York City and attended the 92Y Preschool, which is known in the Jewish community for having a good foundation. My mom is also very active in the community and is the CEO of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York. But for some reason, I just couldn’t connect with it all.
Then, I went to college, and my mom began to push me to go on Birthright Israel. She knew it would be a life-changing experience, yet, I didn’t think I was a good fit. I have tattoos and never thought I would be accepted in Israel. Before going on the trip, I imagined getting off the plane and being stuck at customs because of the way I looked.
After a lot of thought, finally, I said: “Ma, I think I’m ready to do Birthright.” Immediately when I got to Israel, I found a new understanding of Judaism. I knew I was accepted here.
Lessons at Har Herzl
It was at Har Herzl when everything started to make sense. We were saying goodbye to our soldiers and debriefing about what we learned. During this, the soldiers were speaking and doing the prayers. You saw that they would give their lives up to defend Israel. They live and breathe Israel, and when I saw that, it hit me; this is home. And there I was saying goodbye to the Israelis whom I only knew for five days, yet they welcomed me with open arms. To this day, we still talk.
My Birthright Israel experience wasn’t over when we said goodbye to the soldiers. Each day of the trip reinforced Israel as my second home and that no matter how a person defines Judaism, they are accepted here. When it was time to go back to the States, I wasn’t ready. I spent another three and a half weeks in Israel, exploring and hanging out with the Israelis. I even met up with my mom, and we spent time together visiting more sites.
When it was time to leave Israel, I knew I had to have this experience again. My journey with Birthright Israel was not over. So, when I returned to Los Angeles, I became a Madrich and staffed a trip. It was a great opportunity for me to give back and help my peers connect to their Judaism. You can see the impact during the debriefs each day when participants are eager to ask questions and extend their time in Israel.
I love it when they want to stay and revisit places we went such as Tzfat as one of the participants did. Some of the participants are even shocked when they find out we’re volunteers, and we’re using our own vacation time to be here. I always tell them that Birthright Israel allowed me to connect, and I want to give this to someone else. It’s essential young Jews can define their own idea of Judaism.
It may be months since I staffed that trip, but I’ll always be there for my participants. Israel will never leave me. I often think of the soldiers I met and how they are protecting Israel when I get ready for work as an armed guard at a synagogue. When I put on my bulletproof vest, I always make sure to attach my Israeli flag patch so I know Israel’s by my side. It reminds me of why I do what I do and the importance of guarding the synagogue so my fellow Jews can pray – safely.