In 2004 I moved from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn to a small suburban town in New Jersey where I became the “token Jew.” Here, I could count on one hand how many other Jewish people there were. For me, it made growing up Jewish and accepting my faith hard. I am also “half Jewish” so some people described me as not being a real Jew since my dad is Christian and my mom Jewish. My parents did the best they could to raise us with “a little bit of everything,” as I like to say. I could not be more grateful for the knowledge they instilled in us.  

So, as life went on in this New Jersey town I also became known as the “Benny.” Benny is a derogatory term used by year-round residents of the Jersey Shore to stereotype what they consider rude, flashy, and loud tourists from North Jersey and New York. Life for me was already hard being one of a few Jewish kids and being the new kid from Brooklyn made it even worse.  

As I got older and more knowledgeable about antisemitism, I became quiet. I saw a lot of hate in the world. I started to not tell people I was Jewish. I told my parents I didn’t want a Bat Mitzvah – why did it even matter? I remember sitting on the school bus and having pennies thrown at me and loud laughter coming from the other kids, just because I was Jewish. Part of me thought, why are they laughing? In some ways, I am like them since I also celebrated Christmas. None of it made sense to me as to why who I was mattered so much to everyone else. To this day, hatred still does not make complete sense to me.  

My high school years went on and antisemitism only increased. My fellow students would make fun of the Jewish people of Lakewood, NJ, a town with a large Orthodox community, and make fun of their hair, nose, clothes, and lifestyle in general. They would tell me Jews were greedy and rude and the list goes on. This made me question people and made me look at myself differently. Do I have these traits? Am I rude?  

As time went on, I graduated high school and eventually signed up for Birthright Israel in 2016. I went with my other friend who was also considered a “token Jew.” During our trip, we met so many amazing people from all over the east coast that I am still friends. The Jewish traditions my mom taught me growing were brought to life in Israel. Seeing it firsthand was an eye-opener for me. I will never forget toward the end of my trip when our Tour Educator said to us, “that high you’re feeling is real.” What he meant was what we were experiencing, and learning was really happening. It gives me chills to relive that moment through my photos and videos from my trip.  

Haley Abruzzese with members of her Birthright Israel bus in the Shuk in 2016

I felt completely high after coming home from Birthright Israel. I wanted to go back, learn and see as much as I could. Birthright Israel changed me on the inside. It filled something in me that I was missing, and it was accepting my Jewish faith. The trip gave me an opportunity to accept who I was and not be ashamed of it. I learned that being a Jew is nothing but extraordinary and I hope to continue to pass that knowledge on to my children one day, so they never have to experience the hate I did.  

To the donors who made my trip possible, I want to thank you a hundred times over. It was such an amazing opportunity and something I will carry with me forever.  

It's All in the Numbers: See the impact Birthright Israel trips have on young Jewish adults and why providing these experiences is so crucial to our Jewish heritage.
It's All in the Numbers: See the impact Birthright Israel trips have on young Jewish adults and why providing these experiences is so crucial to our Jewish heritage.