Isn’t it amazing how when you’re young, your life is built around the idea of community? We have community at school with our classmates, community with sports and in my case community with fellow tennis players on my high school tennis team or the dancers, I danced with in college. There are a lot of opportunities to be part of a community that is built into the educational experience from kindergarten through college. But once you graduate college, building a community is really tricky.
For the most part, you build community around work since that is where, as an adult, you spend much of your time. Speaking of work, when I had the chance to get my dream job in Miami, FL I took it. I had an apartment on the beach, I was managing one of the top fitness gyms in the country, and I thought I would absolutely love it…and have yet again another community. However, it was actually a terrible experience. I couldn’t connect with anyone at work. There is an amazingly substantial Jewish community in Miami, but I just never felt like I fit in for some reason.
On my 29th birthday, I realized I had no one to spend the day with so I decided to drive four hours to Orlando and go to Disney World. I was feeling down and could use being at the most magical place on Earth. Plus, I used to work for Disney Cruise Lines, so I knew I could get in for free!
As I was driving back from my trip…I knew I couldn’t keep going on like this. I felt this massive void in my life. I wasn’t connected to anything, I wasn’t fulfilled, and I was lonely. I decided I needed a change. I made a list of things I wanted to do to get my life back on track. One of the things I wrote on this list was to visit Israel. This was important to me because my grandmother who is a Holocaust Survivor always instilled a love for Israel in me.
A little while later, I was talking with a good friend who lives in Los Angeles who told me she had just gotten back from her Birthright Israel trip, and I was shocked. I thought we were both too old to go on a Birthright Israel trip! She went on to tell me that you could be 29 years old and still go. In fact, there was an opportunity for people based in Los Angeles to go to Israel on this trip.
I know this may sound crazy, but I took our conversation as a sign that I needed to take action, so I applied to go on the trip, I had my work transfer me to Los Angeles, I packed up everything I own and moved to California just so I could be eligible to go on this the trip!
I got to LA a day before my Birthright Israel trip was leaving. I got accidentally locked out of my new apartment doing laundry and spent hours trying to figure out how to get in and finally had the landlord help me. Hurriedly, I packed my bags fast and within a few hours I was heading to Israel!!!!
While I was in Israel, something magical happened. I finally felt what I was missing. I found my community, and it was with my fellow Jewish people. The energy of the trip was indescribable. There was this connection I had with a busload of strangers that became my closest friends in a way I couldn’t even imagine. I went to Israel with no community, and I came back with forty strangers who became my family, my community.
Something I specifically remember from my trip was visiting a synagogue in Tzfat. When we got off the bus, there was this energy in the air. We hear this music. We see the whole street singing and dancing and laughing. Moreover, we are like “WHAT IS GOING ON?!?!” It’s a Bar Mitzvah, we were told, and then this random old woman grabs my hand, and we start dancing in the street. We were so happy, and we were so present – we were one community.
After dancing in the streets, we went to visit an old synagogue to learn its history. Everything starts to gel together, and I realized the Jewish people are my sense of community. I needed to do something to take action to solidify my connection to my new community. When we left the synagogue, I looked up and saw a candle shop and ran towards it.
I decided at that moment that every Friday night moving forward I would light Shabbat candles. I bought pretty much all of the shop’s Shabbat candles. I had so many candles I didn’t know how I was going to get them home, so I went next door and bought a big ole suitcase that’s sole purpose was to hold a year’s worth of Shabbat candles and pray that none of them break!
After I arrived back in Los Angeles lighting Shabbat candles became my ritual for connecting to my Jewish identity. I light Shabbat candles every week. I am now incredibly passionate about hosting events such as open mic nights for Hanukkah, Break the Fast, Shabbat dinner, the list goes on to reach other young Jewish adults and educate them on the beauty of our shared heritage.
When people come to my apartment for these events, I tell them you don’t have to worry about not feeling Jewish enough or just being “Jew-ish.” There’s no wrong way in how you are Jewish. There is no wrong way to be part of this community, just be part of it. The void of “community” that exists for so many 20 and 30 something-year-olds can be filled with the beauty of our Jewish community. Moreover, for me, the beauty of this community began with a Birthright Israel trip and a bus full of strangers who became lifelong friends.
Since my Birthright Israel trip, I’ve obviously fallen in love with the country. I’ve been there five times, and I am a Birthright Israel Fellow. I have had the opportunity to staff three trips, and the list honestly can go on and on about how Birthright has changed my life.
However, what I want to say to those of you who are still reading this is, many of whom probably donors; you are the reason that my life changed and the reason I found my community in the Jewish people. Thank you.
Thank you so much for reaching into your hearts and making a gift so that people like me can go on this magical trip. Your generosity helped me realize I don’t have to be anyone, but myself and I can be lit up by the beauty of Israel and the Jewish people. I can tell you this beyond a shadow of a doubt, and keep in mind this is coming from someone who loves Disney and worked for them for two years, for a young Jewish person, it is NOT Disney, but Israel, that is the most magical place on earth.