“I’ve never felt ‘Jewish enough’ until now”, University of Delaware Sophomore Annie Gawroniak stated upon her arrival to JFK airport in New York returning from her Birthright Israel trip. “The older I’ve gotten, the easier it is to see myself in the Jewish cultures, values and religion.”
Growing up with a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, she celebrated one night of presents on Christmas versus the eight nights of Hanukkah and felt jealous towards all her Jewish friends in middle school who’s parents threw them ‘the party of the year’. At the age of 13, Annie stepped out of her comfort zone and made the bold decision to start exploring Judaism.
With her mother’s support, Annie found what she was looking for within the Jewish world. Anticipation filled her while attending synagogue and she experienced a feeling of familiarity when walking through the doors to Hebrew school Annie, who does not appreciate the religious aspect of Judaism, found comfort in her connection with her rabbi who said, “It’s okay if you don’t believe in G-d, I care if you believe in good”. That philosophy has impacted her since then, and affects how she lives everyday – in Judaism and in life.
Annie questioned how to live her Jewish identity at the University of Delaware – until now. When a hometown friend suggested check out her campus Hillel, she was hesitant. She struggled to feel she had a place at Hillel, because of how she practiced her Judaism. Her family suggested she look into Birthright Israel.
Birthright Israel registration opened at the University of Delaware Hillel, and she mustered up the courage to press the ‘submit’ button. During her first orientation with 40 other students, she knew she made the right choice. “It wasn’t a question for me,” Annie said “I knew I wanted to go with Delaware students to continue these relationships post-Israel.”
In Israel, Annie found home. At the Kotel in Jerusalem, someone mentioned the concept of home and that put it all into perspective. Traveling for 10 days in Israel, her notions of the Holy Land made a complete 180 degree turn.
The University of Delaware Hillel partners with StandWithUs and Seed the Dream Foundation to expand this trip's program content through educational seminars, exciting tours throughout the country, and other hands-on learning experiences. This included a visit to Northern Israel where participants saw Israel's vast diversity first hand. This unique trip also allows Birthright soldiers to stay with the bus for the full ten days versus the standard five. “They wanted to teach us about everything – politics, the Israeli culture, the music and of course, the eats,” she shared
Annie, among others, found the comparisons of being religiously Jewish versus cultural and the music tastes between Americans and Israelis at their age shockingly similar. That they are not that religious, but connected to Israel culturally helped Annie understand her connection to Israel because she, too, felt this way. She admired the soldiers for not only their dedication to service, but also how they wanted the American students to feel they were home; that they too belong here.
Since becoming a Bat Mitzvah in Israel, Annie's personal values and opinions changed through conversations on Birthright Israel. She now feels it is her responsibility to make a difference and advocate for Israel. “Hillel has opened my eyes to new opportunities ”, Annie shares with excitement. With this ‘life-marking’ journey, she starts a new chapter and serves as Birthright Israel intern within UD Hillel. Now that she has a connection to the people and the land of Israel, she claims herself as an Israeli ambassador.