During the spring semester of 2019, a friend of mine asked to meet up for coffee - courtesy of UD Hillel - to chat about her experience on Birthright the previous summer. Never one to turn down free coffee, I agreed to meet. As I sipped on my coffee, Sydney spoke passionately about her trip, eagerly answered all my questions and showed me an entire photo album from her time in Israel. She had already convinced me to sign up, but when I found out there was a study abroad version of the trip, I knew that was the one for me. Earning credit for a class on food, wine, and culture, and getting to spend four extra days in Israel--how could I pass that up?
Flash forward eight months to late December and I am home in New Jersey, anxiously packing for my time in Israel. I still had so many questions. Would I make friends? Would I be able to connect with my Jewish identity in Israel? How does one pack for rainy, 50 degree weather? But as cliche as it may sound, once I stepped out of Ben Gurion airport and into the Israeli sunshine, I felt all my worries disappear. I was finally here and I was ready for whatever the next 14 days would be.
Although we were all exhausted, we spent our first day eating and drinking our way through the Levinsky Market in Tel Aviv, getting our first true taste of Israeli cuisine. The next night was December 31, and it was our first “night out” - the first time we were able to relax and get to know one other. I will never forget how special it felt ringing in the brand new year in a brand new place with brand new friends. The next day things were even more exciting, as we went to a goat farm, a brewery, and a winery all in the same day. It was an amazing start to the trip and an amazing start to the new year.
By the end of the first week we were ready to welcome Shabbat in northern Israel at the Kinneret. On Friday night we attended services, and on Saturday we had a group discussion on Jewish identity. That conversation was the first time on the trip I found myself overcome with emotion, reflecting on what it means to me to be Jewish. Growing up I always felt out of place in a town with few to no Jews, feeling almost too Jewish for simply being Jewish at all. However, as I listened to my peers talk about their Jewish friends from home and memories from Jewish camp, I once again felt out of place - this time though, it was because I felt like I was not Jewish enough. As these conflicting thoughts raced through my mind and I tried my best to hold back tears, I continued listening, and things finally came into perspective. I learned that there is no such thing as being “too Jewish” or “not Jewish enough” - so much of being a good Jew simply means being a good human being.
While the first week was pivotal in exploring my Jewish identity, the second week was critical in establishing and finding my place within a Jewish community. I found out that it was easy to form friendships with others among the group as we spent all day, every day together. We were already beginning to feel like a family, but it was not until that second week when our six Israelis joined the group that our family felt complete. The joy, energy, and insight that the Israelis brought to the group was incredible, and the connections that we made were stronger than I could have imagined. I will never forget the morning we visited Mount Herzl national cemetery and all our Israelis shared stories of those who were killed or injured while serving in the IDF. Many tears were shed that morning, and our American perspectives were reshaped by the experience.
Saying goodbye at the end of the trip was incredibly tough. On the last day when we each shared our most meaningful moment of the trip, I was so overwhelmed that I could not even get out what I wanted to say. Hearing everyone else’s responses, deciding which moment to talk about out of so many, and realizing that my time in Israel was almost over, was, in that moment, too much for me
to handle. I pulled it together though, smiling and laughing for the rest of the night as we went out and celebrated together as a family, or mishpacha, in Jerusalem. The next morning it was time to say goodbye and begin our long journey back to the United States, with full hearts, and even fuller stomachs.
Looking back on it all, my Birthright study abroad experience made for two of the best weeks of my life. Although the rugelach and falafel were indescribable, for me, the biggest takeaways of my time in Israel were the strong feelings of identity and community I gained while I was there. While I often find myself questioning who I am and where I belong in this world, I feel as though I found some answers while in Israel. I am Jewish, I am part of an amazing community of Jews, and for that, I am forever grateful and proud.
(This article was originally published on JVoice).