If it wasn’t for Birthright Israel, I don’t know if I’d still be Jewish ten years down the road.
After being Bar Mitzvah’d, there was little that still linked me to Judaism besides food. For instance, eating latkes every April, fasting on Yom Kippur, and suffering through Shabbat services on the rare Friday night, I visited my grandparents and great-grandma at Temple Zion in Long Beach, New York. At the University of Pennsylvania, I was roped into joining the Chabad’s Jewish Heritage Program under the pretense of unlimited wine on Shabbat and an opportunity to meet guys in the fraternities I wanted to join. So, the extent of my faith was in good matzoh ball soups and free alcohol, never a tenable belief that I was a member of a people that had fought and died for the last 5,000 years to allow a kid like me to be Jewish.
Birthright Israel: A Trip of Firsts
Birthright Israel for me was ten days of firsts. My first trip to Israel, my first time really learning about how the country’s neighbors were doing everything in their power to destroy it, and my first time feeling like being Jewish mattered for something. Perhaps most poignantly, it was my first experience befriending Israeli soldiers who, despite matching me in age, lived lives unrecognizable to my own. In history class, I had read about 18-year-old Americans who were drafted in World War Two and Vietnam to go off and fight. But now it felt real—now I saw what it meant to sacrifice some of the best years of your life to do something that benefited people other than yourself. They told stories of how their friends had died. While I was at college trying to get smarter, prepare myself to get a good job, and set up my life for the future, Nir, Naama, Max, Dan, and Rotem were serving their country and protecting their loved ones. I felt proud because although I wasn’t Israeli, they were also fighting for me because I was Jewish.
Visiting the Western Wall
At the Western Wall, I found out what it was like to be Jewish. I saw men with black fur hats and silk coats dancing in circles and holding hands. I saw hundreds of other Birthright Israel participants laughing and praying and bowing to the huge stone wall. Above it all, I saw birds—hundreds of common swifts— circling like an audience for the weekly festivities of Shabbat.
There was a moment there that I felt like I belonged, and a moment of vulnerability where I allowed belief in G-d to seep into my mind as a possibility, something I might think more about. I watched all of these Jews experiencing what it was like to be close to G-d, and I wanted it.
I spent the two-hour walk back to our hotel simultaneously enchanted by new possibilities and subdued by kosher wine, thinking about what embracing Yiddishkeit would mean. The next day, I walked to the Israeli Supreme Court alongside one of the Penn Chabad Rabbis, Menachem Schmidt. He’s a Ba’al Teshuva, meaning he grew up just like me but somehow ended up wearing a black hat and a black suit 24/7. I didn’t get it, but I was intrigued: how does that 180-degree change in perspective happen to a person? Since I would be spending the rest of the summer in Israel to intern for an Israeli tech startup through the TAMID program, he encouraged me to start studying with some Rabbis. I told him I’d consider it.
Next Stop: Yad Vashem
The Jewish music in the shtetls and European towns that I quietly listened to at Yad Vashem stays with me even now. The unmistakable sadness in these hymns that praise G-d and memorialize the Jewish tradition and never-ending exodus seemed to portend the European Diaspora following the Holocaust. The “Jewish Question” was answered by the Germans. I thought about my ancestors and how much they’d given up so that I could go on Birthright Israel.
Discovering Israel’s Tech Scene
On the last night, our whole trip went to our student trip leader and my friend Gabe’s house in Ra’anana to debrief. His dad, Nathan Low, a venture capital investor in Israel and a big advocate for the nation’s advancement, spoke about his journey to become a Ba’al Teshuva. Now, Torah study had my attention. I started studying because of what, in my mind, was an unexplainable contradiction. I spent my whole life learning about two irreconcilable camps of people: the smart ones who believed in evolution and science and the religious fanatics who believed in G-d and shunned science and were implicitly wrong. After meeting Nathan and several other highly successful businesspeople through Penn, I knew the issue wasn’t so black and white, and I owed it to myself to do a little soul-searching.
Since I started learning in Israel that summer, I’ve been studying Torah ever since, and my worldview has changed considerably. I no longer envy those Chareidim with the black hats for their connection to spirituality because I have my own.
The Incredible Gift of Birthright Israel
I left Birthright Israel with amazing new friends I will have for life. I fell in love with the Jerusalem breakfast. I cleansed my face in the Dead Sea’s mud. At the Kotel, I experienced the spiritual connection of our people to the land of Israel. Then I went to Mount Herzl and realized what it cost to be Jewish. Birthright Israel did in fact, create my Jewish identity, something I will never lose sight of again.
Lastly, I was excited to staff a Birthright Israel trip this past summer to help other students have the same experience I had, one of wonder, appreciation, and gratitude that a program this special even existed. However, the coronavirus pandemic changed our plans. I know that one day though, I will have this opportunity to revisit Israel and relive 10 of the best and most important days of my life.