You may have heard us say this before: Birthright Israel is strengthening the Jewish future. But…
The creation of my Jewish identity has been a rollercoaster of negative and positive experiences. I grew up at a reform temple in Indianapolis and always enjoyed dinner with my parents on Friday or Saturday nights. It wasn’t a traditional Shabbat dinner, but it was a family dinner that reinforced the importance of togetherness, which is a critical component of Jewish life.
Growing up, I was a popular kid. However, in seventh grade, things changed. I was sitting at the lunch table when a “friend” said, “What’s the difference between a Jew and a pizza? The pizza doesn’t scream when it’s put in the oven.” I didn’t know how to respond, and my parents have since told me that when the school addressed this antisemitism with the child’s parents (as well as several other parents), they did not believe there was anything wrong with what was said. They were teaching their children hatred, racism, antisemitism, and bigotry in their homes. For the next two years, I was bullied for being Jewish.
When I got to high school, I had new friends and thought antisemitism bullying was behind me. Unfortunately, South Park was a very prominent TV show at the time, in which one of the repeating storylines included one character bullying a Jewish character. Once again, I was the recipient of antisemitism, although this time, it was not malicious intent but rather ignorance and lack of education.
Today, I am friends with some of these people who did this because they are good people and have expanded their knowledge of the Jewish people.
I transferred to Brebeuf after my freshman year, and it saved my life while I was in pain; I’ll never forget the conversation I had with my religion teacher, Mr. Alan Mensel, during 10th grade. I explained to him that I did not want to be Jewish, I did not believe in G-D, and I wanted nothing to do with my Judaism. He reassured me that one day, I would return to my Judaic roots and I would embrace the beauty that it has to offer. He was right. In college, I was blessed to restart an all-Jewish fraternity at Indiana University Bloomington. I created Jewish friendships within Alpha Epsilon Pi that will last me a lifetime, and it was during my sophomore year that I participated in a Birthright Israel trip with my fraternity brothers. While this Birthright Israel experience wasn’t a life-changing moment for me at the time, it laid the foundation for future experiences that would positively alter my Jewish journey.
Adulthood: The Defining Moments
Since then, I’ve had four moments that have helped shape my Jewish identity into what it is today. First, I participated in the ADL’s Glass Leadership program, and through this, I learned more about antisemitism and how to combat it. The second event was visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau with Eva Mozes Kor, a twin from Auschwitz that was experimented on by Dr. Mengele. The third moment was in the summer of 2022 when I visited Israel as part of the ATID Prystowsky Leadership Program offered by my Jewish Federation. This was the first time that I had experienced Israel as a grown adult, and I fell in love. When I came back, three things happened. I booked my next flight back, I was introduced to Todd & Linda Maurer to help create the Maurer Koach Program, and I signed up to staff a Birthright Israel trip. My cousin and close friend were among the participants, and watching them experience Israel for the first time was so meaningful.
The fourth moment, arguably the most critical as it pertains to my beliefs surrounding Jewish identity in America while I was staffing another trip in 2023. What I saw and experienced reaffirmed my belief that the Jewish people outside of Israel MUST visit Israel. Unfortunately, the ideas that I had been philosophizing for several years were shown to be true. Regardless of which political outlet provides news, nearly all politics surrounding Israel are providing Americans with inaccurate and skewed information that results in the demonization of Israel, its government, and the Jewish people.
With the advancements in technology, there is zero control over the spread of information, and Jewish Americans who do not already know the truth will be lied to about Israel. One evening, we had a geopolitical guest speaker. What I saw is something I will never forget. I witnessed young adults vehemently oppose and reject certain truths because of the misinformation they see on social media and in the news. I saw the participants argue that there is no separation between the Jewish state and the government, and as a result, no non-Jewish person could ever have the same benefits, which again is false. There are non-Jewish citizens of Israel who are lawyers, doctors, judges, and more.
I spoke with the Israelis that evening and expressed my concern. They all understood what needed to happen. By the end of the trip, lies were shown to be lies, and the truths had emerged. While I know all the participants went home with a positive image of Israel and a strengthened Jewish identity, I knew what I had to do. Birthright Israel showed me that I needed to be an advocate for the program because young Jewish adults need to see Israel with their own two eyes.
My Jewish Why
In my opinion, people and experiences change the course of humanity. My experiences in Israel and seeing others experience Israel for the first time have provided value to my life. Meeting Israelis and having soldiers from both Birthright Israel trips become lifelong friends is incredible.
We live in a world where people are addicted to technology, and they have a false sense of reality through the continuous notion that the highlight reels seen on social media are everyday life. Birthright Israel, in my opinion, is one of the greatest tools the Jewish people can offer to young Jews to combat the lack of connection to their Jewish heritage and the misinformation spread online. All it takes is one person to positively change the course of the Jewish people for decades and centuries to come, and that one person, given that over 800,000 young Jews have participated, could be a Birthright Israel alum.