Palm Beach native and longtime Temple Emanu-El member Susan Pertnoy recently took a trip that she…
Before I left for Birthright Israel in May of 2019, I was scared. I wasn’t nervous about the security situation, or sad about being far from my family— I was scared that I wouldn’t make the absolute most of this opportunity to make a difference. I’m glad I was scared because, as a madricha (trip staff), I had the responsibility to ensure that a bus full of holy souls would have a life-changing experience.
Judaism is a huge part of my life. To most young Jews today, though, Judaism seems obsolete and uninteresting. To me, not taking an interest in your Judaism is like inheriting a family chest filled with gold, but never even bothering to look inside. In our world, we are constantly searching for ways to better ourselves — exercise, diets, etc., anything in the name of self-care. What we neglect most of the time, is a spiritual connection. Living a Jewish life can complete our search for betterment, changing everything, and ensuring a meaningful, happy existence.
I wanted to be realistic about my goals for the trip, though. I know (from many Jewish stories) that you can’t force anyone to change. I decided that my goal was to try to be the best example of a proud Jew I could.
I’d had nightmares of getting a bus full of apathetic, uninterested students. I couldn’t have been more wrong. On our bus, we had students from 16 universities, ultimately spanning the entire US. We had students from USC in California and USC in South Carolina, from Texas and Pennsylvania, from Florida and Montana, and others. The variety of people didn’t stop there, though. We had young Jewish adults who attended day school growing up and those who had never stepped foot in a synagogue. Some who spoke perfect Hebrew and some who learned “Shalom” on their first day. We had student-athletes, musicians, pre-med and pre-law students, and many more. The group was insanely diverse, and yet they meshed so beautifully. Why? Because they all had one fundamental thing in common: they were Jews.
One of the most moving parts of leading a Birthright Israel trip for me was our B’nai Mitzvah ceremony in Jerusalem. A bar or bat mitzvah is known as the hallmark of a Jewish upbringing, and yet there were quite a few students who hadn’t had the opportunity. Some students were brave enough to agree to take part in the ceremony in front of all of their peers.
They were already Jewish adults in the eyes of G-d, but this ceremony cemented their Jewish identity. For the rest of their lives, they can say: “I had a bar/bat mitzvah in Jerusalem.”
When you send a young Jew on Birthright Israel, you don’t just change their life; you change the lives of everyone around them. Alumni bring something back from Israel that is too huge, too extraordinary to fit in their suitcase: Jewish pride. If someone isn’t knowledgeable about their Judaism, it makes it very difficult for them to feel confident as a Jew. In our world, where anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiments run rampant, what we need the most are confident, proud Jews. Actively exposing young Jews to Israel is the best way to educate and instill feelings of pride. Feelings of pride not only in their heritage but also in their homeland.
A Jew with love for Judaism and love for Israel is one of the most powerful things in the world. A Jew like that can set off ripples—ripples that are far-reaching and long-lasting.
It’s a similar feeling when we are on the precipice of experiences both amazing and terrifying. Before leading this Birthright Israel trip, I had no idea which of the two I was going to be experiencing. Having the opportunity to staff a trip and share my love of Judaism and Israel with these wonderful students has absolutely changed my life, and hopefully theirs, for the better.