I wandered for twenty years until Birthright Israel found me. This is how happened.
Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, the most Jewish thing we did at my house was on Christmas, when we’d leave rugelach out for Santa. And to make things even more ironic, my last name is Pope.
My mom’s parents are Jewish but did not raise her with any Judaism. She eventually found herself at church. I spent the majority of my childhood flipping back and forth between my divorced parents; I was Baptist one week and Presbyterian the next.
When I finally became old enough to start developing my own faith and identity, Christianity was the only lens I knew to look through. But the Christian lens never gave me the sight I needed. I even declared philosophy as a major in college as an excuse to find a guiding philosophy for myself. It’s safe to say I was amidst an identity crisis, or perhaps just a product of assimilation.
As I was searching for meaning, a memory popped back into my head from summer camp when I was 15. The camp was secular, but many of the campers were Jewish. I remember kids would always find a way to slide in a little good old Jewish humor. My subconscious impression of Judaism began to form as I grew to see Jews as just another punchline.
Sure, I knew I was technically Jewish (whatever that meant) because of my mom, but it was strictly a technicality. What did always stick with me from that summer was a conversation I overheard about this thing called Birthright Israel. For some reason, this memory tucked itself away in the back of my head for safekeeping.
Two and a half semesters deep into college and three major changes later, my search for purpose was desperate. Maybe it was the pressure of being unhappy that jerked this summer camp memory back to the surface, but whatever made this thing called “Birthright” pop back into my head was bashert.
In a matter of a few minutes, I was filling out the application, and in a matter of weeks, I was at JFK Airport in New York City, ready to depart for Israel. A bunch of other college students joined me, and the first unspoken question, “How Jewish are you?” came up. I listened to the conversation around me as others in the group were all sharing their Jewish backgrounds. I very soon realized that I was an anomaly. Eventually, it was my turn to chime in, and I wasn’t going to be able to hide my lack of expertise here…
“I literally don’t know the first thing about Judaism. I couldn’t even tell you what Hanukkah was,” I shared with the group. The Christian lens I had worn all my life was warning me of the judgment that would come for my honesty, but it didn’t. My Birthright Israel group welcomed me with open arms, excited to show me everything I was missing.
As we walked to the gate at the airport, a quote on the wall jumped out and grabbed me, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” by Lao Tzu. It occurred to me that my first step was founded on a “Why the hell not!” moment one day in college that turned into me boarding a plane to a foreign country with absolute strangers.
We land in Israel, and my Birthright Israel trip began in Tzfat, which just so happened to be the place of my Birthright Israel Plus extension program as well. As we arrived in Tzfat, our lovely Tour Educator, Orna, instructed us that we could each choose an activity for the afternoon: art, music, or meditation. Mediation won, no contest.
As my group gathered on the balcony of the Livnot U’Lehbinot, the same organization that would be hosting my Mountains and Mystics extension program, we sat overlooking the sunset on the mountains as we were waiting for our activity to begin.
Then, my ah-ha moment came, which I think is something that happens for everyone on these trips. A boisterously happy voice was making his way up the stairs. I immediately felt drawn to him. It was Eyal Karoutchi, a well-known spiritual guide. The deep peace that radiated from his presence was unmistakable.
As he spoke to us about meditation, it was clear that I was not the only one affected by his presence. “Ahhh, yes! Meditation is very funny! Let the laughter pour out, and we shall begin,” sang Eyal in a childlike manner. His energy continuously filled the room. Eyal fell quiet, and so did my group. In a soft voice, he told us, “I am going to ask you a question. What I want from you is simple. Don’t think about your answer. Just answer.”
“Who are you?”
It is possible he was speaking to the entire group, but his eyes peering directly at me made me feel like he knew something I didn’t. These three words fell on me like an ambush. I had nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Eyal’s gaze dissolved all the surface level thoughts streaming through my head, and at that moment, my soul stood naked.
And it was here, on my Birthright Israel trip, sitting in a distant country, me, Riley Pope, realized I had no clue who I was.
It’s been months since my Birthright Israel trip and that meditation session that changed my life. My trip feels like a journey that was uniquely crafted for me. It helped me discover that who we are and what we want to be is not entirely a choice, but a discovery and embrace of that which we have always been. I now know you must first uncover and surrender to that which you are before ever determining that which you will become.
And truthfully, I’m still looking for the answer to Eyal’s question. But if someone asked me today, I would say, “I am Jewish, that much I know.”