There’s a difference between being Jewish and being Jew “ish.” I was born Jewish, but I was not raised Jewish.
Back in the 1940’s, my Ashkenazi grandmother was born and raised Jewish in Brooklyn, New York. Although it was very unusual for women of her time to receive proper Jewish education, she continued to practice Judaism well into her adulthood. However, everything changed when she fell in love with my grandfather, a West Indian non-Jew. Unfortunately, her family did not support her decision to be with someone who wasn’t Jewish – but that didn’t stop them from eloping. My grandmother stopped practicing Judaism in her early twenties, shortly after marrying my grandfather and giving birth to my mom and aunt. I speculate that she decided to stop practicing mainly as a result of being disowned and ostracized by her family for marrying someone who was deemed unacceptable to her community, but I never found the courage to have these heartfelt, yet difficult, conversations with her before she passed away…
My grandmother died of stage IV breast cancer in the summer of 2017. After her death, I did a lot of soul searching. I felt that I needed to grow, and I began to embark on a spiritual journey.
When it came to exploring my Jewish identity, I always felt hesitant and anxious. No one in my immediate family is a practicing Jew and did not, nor do I, have much of a relationship with any Jewish relatives. Additionally, I grew up never meeting any other Black Jews. Growing up as a non-practicing Jew made me feel like I truly did not fit in anywhere. I had no community to turn to. None of my Black peers could relate to me being Jewish, and none of my Jewish peers could relate to me being Black. I felt truly ostracized because of my Jewishness for a very long time.
After much reflection and prayer, I recognized that I spent way too much time not accepting or exploring my “Jewishness,” and that it was unfair to deny myself the opportunity to grow spiritually and/or religiously. When I was presented with going on Birthright Israel, I realized that that was my birthright, and turning down the opportunity to explore the culture of my ancestors would be limiting, unfulfilling and truly unfortunate.
Furthermore, I wanted to do this for my grandmother. She always wanted to visit Israel, but never got the chance to go. I wanted to make her proud. And most of all, I wanted to make myself proud.
The trip itself was an experience like no other. Becoming a Bat Mitzvah and receiving my Hebrew name in the Old City in Jerusalem, as well as praying at the Western Wall, were some of the most emotional and powerful experiences of my life. I also met my first Black Jewish friend, Melekte. She offered me a perspective that I had been yearning to hear for a very long time. It was incredible meeting someone who could relate to my Black and Jewish heritage.
There was also the “Mifgash” aspect of the trip. Thanks to the soldiers who joined us, I learned a lot about the Israeli military and Israeli culture. The soldiers were very open and honest about everything – their likes and dislikes, their personal life experiences and their duty serving the State of Israel. It was important to me, not only to learn the history of Israel and its culture, but also to gain an authentic outlook of what it means to be Israeli. Without these intimate one-on-one conversations with the soldiers, I would not have had the chance to see things from their perspective.
Going to Israel, where the majority of the population is Jewish, was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. Not one person questioned me about being a Black Jew or pestered me about whether I had a Jewish upbringing. These are common experiences that I have had in the U.S., and to come to Israel and be welcomed with open arms was a novel and more importantly, loving, experience. Prior to my trip, I had the impression that being more religious makes you a “better Jew,” but after experiencing Birthright Israel, I realized that being connected and united to your community is what makes you a “better Jew.” Allowing yourself to be immersed within your community and culture alongside people who share similar values is what makes being a practicing Jew such a rewarding experience. Community is everything.
Birthright Israel creates a platform for young Jewish people to have transformational life experiences. There is no other culture that offers the opportunity to return to your homeland without worrying about the details such as organization, expenses, transportation, etc. I think that alone speaks volumes about how important community is treated and valued within Jewish culture.
My life definitely would not be the same if I hadn’t gone on Birthright Israel. Going on this trip gave me a sense of comfort and acceptance that I had honestly been looking for my entire life. Being Jewish in America is so different from being Jewish in Israel. In Israel, being Jewish is the norm, but in the U.S. being a triple minority – Black, Jewish and female – has certainly come with many doubts and discomforts. I left Israel with a stronger sense of comfort, health and self-identity. And I returned to the U.S. a happier and prouder Jew.
To the 40,000 donors who gave me this gift, I just want to say “Todah rabah!! Birthright Israel changed my life.”
Alexis Vance was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama. She is a graduate of Xavier University of Louisiana with a B.S. in Biology, Cum Laude. Currently, Alexis resides in New York and attends Hunter College Graduate School where she studies ABA therapy. Alexis also works as an ABA Instructor at the Keswell School in Chelsea, New York. In her spare time, Alexis enjoys singing, painting and modeling.