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Through Birthright Israel, A Newfound Identity and Path Toward Leadership

This piece was originally published by Hillel International on September 13th, 2017.

While interfaith marriage and families have become increasingly more common, growing up with two different religious identities meant I never felt fully Jewish. That is, not until Birthright Israel.

My mother is Jewish, which according to religious tradition, made me Jewish, but having a whole side of my family adhere to another religion raised confusion. Would I be celebrating Hanukkah, Christmas or both each winter? What did celebrating those holidays really mean to me? What did being Jewish really mean to me?

As I went off to college, I began to feel like a part of me was missing, but I didn’t know what. College is a place where students reconcile identity, and I did not feel like my identity was whole as I began my life on campus.

That said, I did know that because I was Jewish, I could sign up for a free 10-day trip to Israel on Birthright Israel through the University of Delaware Hillel. I was feeling a wide range of emotions as I prepared myself for what I had heard former participants call a “life-changing experience.” I had no idea what to expect, but I knew that in order to experience a life-changing trip, I needed to give myself to the journey.

Little did I know, Birthright Israel would not only lead to me finding a faith identity that feels right, but it also has transformed me into a leader in my campus Hillel.

During the first couple of days in Israel, I had the time of my life with 45 new friends; we saw such amazing things that I never imagined I’d have the chance to witness. Admittedly, at first, it was just a vacation in my mind. But as the trip went on and as I started to connect with the people and Jewishness that surrounded me, something within me changed. How was it that I felt more comfortable with myself and my Jewish identity in a foreign country than I did back home?

So often, I had covered up my Jewish identity, or made qualifications about being “only half Jewish,” but at a market in Tzfat, I finally allowed myself to embrace my Jewish-ness. The market was filled with beautiful jewelry, and I saw a Star of David necklace that I kept returning to, thinking to myself, “but is that too Jewish?” With the encouragement of my friends, I eventually bought it for myself as an external symbol of the shift I had been feeling inside.