When I was born, my father wanted to name me Sunshine. My mother compromised and named Meira Shleifer, which translates to illuminate. I grew up in a small Orthodox Jewish community in Waterbury, CT, attended a religious Jewish day school through eighth grade, and an all-girls Orthodox Yeshiva high school. Traditionally, after high school, Yeshiva students go to Israel for a gap year before going to college, getting married, and starting adult life. During the gap year, they attend Seminaries and Yeshivot to focus solely on Bible/Torah study and experience Israel’s culture before these next steps. I was the only member of my senior class who chose not to go. Instead, headed straight to the University of Connecticut.

I have always been someone who enjoys meeting new people. College was the first time I was truly exposed to people who grew up with a distinctly different background, religious affiliation, and religious observance then I had. I found myself with great friends and thriving social life. While I live in an Orthodox Jewish community and am living at home for college, my regional campus has very few Jewish students and no Orthodox students. The community members my age are either in Israel for their gap year, attending colleges out of state, or starting their professions in other cities. I found myself both surrounded by friends and loved ones within the Orthodox community, but yet very much alone.

Choosing the Right Birthright Israel Trip

A friend of mine, who had attended Birthright Israel the summer before we started college, recommended I go. I am a planner by nature and intensely research options before making decisions. So, I approached my application to Birthright Israel the same way. I researched as many trips that I possibly could. Turns out, I discovered that there were religious trips attended by individuals with similar backgrounds to mine, trips for unaffiliated Jews, affiliated Jews from many denominations, and trips focused on everything from the great outdoors to visiting religious sites

I found myself facing a dilemma. My parents are Orthodox and would have preferred I attend a religious trip focused on observance, surrounded by people of similar backgrounds and practices, well within my comfort zone. With my parent’s support and encouragement, I was comfortable weighing the options and considering the variety of trips Birthright Israel made available. I elected to leave my comfort zone and attend a trip themed, ‘Israel with Israelis.’ It was the right choice.

Discovering My Own Path in Judaism

My decision to choose a trip that is not specifically Orthodox was a difficult one. In my first semester of college, I was confronted that I really didn’t know what my Judaism meant to me. Before college, I didn’t have to think about being observant or why I was observant because it was what I was surrounded by. In college, I was asked, from a new perspective, what it meant to be Jewish, what being observant meant, and felt compelled to explain that for me, Judaism is much more than a religion. It is also a culture, ethnicity, and way of life.

Choosing to attend a religious Birthright Israel trip would not have allowed me to discover my unique path in Judaism, how my path is affected by those around me, or how I can continue to learn from those different from me while growing closer to G-d. I chose to go on a Birthright Israel trip that was not affiliated with any specific religious group. This decision ultimately changed my life.

Photos of Meira Shleifer and her Birthright Israel group in the winter of 2020

What I Learned on Birthright Israel

The trip itself was inspiring, exciting, and expanded my view of my culture. In my Birthright Israel group, the people were kind, non-judgmental, and open to all walks of life. Notably, they were all incredibly unique individuals from unique backgrounds and all with different definitions of what Judaism looked like to them. As a Shomer-Shabbat, Shomer-Kashrut person, I anticipated that it would be more challenging to hold to my practices during the trip. This was not because of everyone around me, but because of the challenge of staying in a hotel that utilized key-cards to open up doors, and Friday night activities such as going to the Kibbutz bar where you had to pay for drinks. When we stayed at a hotel for Shabbat, I couldn’t get a non-electric key to my room before sundown. In turn, I ended up being locked out.

When our Tour Educator found out, he laughed and got me a physical key, so I wouldn’t have to rely on my roommates. He told me that he would have gotten it for me before Shabbat had started if he had known. When we stayed at the Kibbutz, and the bar was open, I couldn’t go because, for me, handling money on Shabbat isn’t allowed. At first, I was concerned that I would be alone in my room, but my friends decided to keep me company so I wouldn’t feel left out. These experiences are some of the most memorable to me and truly changed my perspective when I realized that being around people whose Judaism meant something different to them, did not minimize or change how I felt. I never once felt that others were disrespectful or anything less than supportive of how I practice Judaism.

Your Experience Can Help: Whether you’re an alum, family member, or longtime trip leader, sharing your experience can benefit future trip participants! Share Your Story >
Your Experience Can Help: Whether you’re an alum, family member, or longtime trip leader, sharing your experience can benefit future trip participants! Share Your Story >

Regaining My Jewish Identity

Birthright Israel absolutely changed how I view Judaism, both personally and religiously. Instead of Judaism looking monolithic and uniform, it instead became a living entity that did not just fit one definition. Judaism, to me, became more than just a religion; it became an identity and a family that I found myself extremely grateful to be a part of. My practice became something that I chose to do every day, instead of being observant because everyone around me fit into the same mold and did the same things.

Birthright Israel was not only the trip I wanted, but it was also the trip I didn’t know I needed. The trip facilitated so many opportunities for me to grow and develop as a person, I could go on forever. I recommend going on Birthright Israel to all of my Jewish friends, whether they are religious or not because I think it’s an incredible opportunity to broaden cultural awareness and appreciation. To my religious friends specifically, I recommend going because I feel that Birthright Israel is an incredible opportunity that will teach you more about yourself and your Judaism. It will also show you more about why and how you practice then you could ever learn anywhere else.