For many Jewish youth, Birthright is their first experience with Judaism. In times where secular Judaism is becoming more and more common, it’s not surprising that, as was the case with my Birthright group, a few bar and bat mitzvahs are completed in Israel. I went on Birthright with UF Hillel during the summer of 2014. I became a bar mitzvah in 2008, and graduated from Hebrew High in 2013. Don’t be deceived; my relationship with Judaism is a comfortable distance. Judaism, ever since my youth, has and continues to be a claim on identity, not religiosity.
So Birthright for me was an existentially rewarding experience. I can’t speak on behalf of other organizations, but going with UF Hillel was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. There are not many opportunities for Jewish youth to go to Israel for 10 days, see the history they’ve only heard about in religious literature, all on the budget of a typical college student. When deciding on which trip to go on, my only main concern was “intensity of religiosity.” While I’m more than comfortable with others practicing Judaism to whatever degree they see fit, I’m not comfortable with it being imposed on me, the same way I would feel uncomfortable pushing my qualms with religiosity on them. Needless to say, when I found out that there would be no mikvah swimming lessons, I was relieved.
Birthright with UF Hillel was an eye-opening ten days. If you’re going to Israel to find answers to political and religious questions that plague you as an American Jew though, you will be disappointed. You will, quite simply, leave with more questions than answers. You will spend the wee hours of the morning hearing thirty different takes on what Judaism means to different people. You will spend a night in the desert staring at more stars than you’ve ever seen in your life, wondering if any of those people are actually right. You will let the sand of that desert slip through your fingers and wonder what the conflict over this sand is really about. You will go to the Western Wall and watch people who have had no relationship with Judaism cry as they place notes in the cracks, and you will watch people like me feel like they’re talking to a wall. Birthright was to me simply an introduction to that which I already known: a way to put a face to the names I had learned and read of studying for my bar mitzvah and confirmation.
After Birthright was over, I went home for the summer and interned. I felt an immense yearning to return to the Holy Land. Next summer, I interned in Jerusalem for roughly three months. During the time there I lived in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood and commuted to my office in a secular metro area. I truly saw the best of both worlds and learned about Israel hands on via total and complete immersion.
Unfortunately, after three months of living in the heart of Jerusalem, traveling all around the nation, meeting and talking with religious leaders, secular intellectuals, native Palestinians and Israelis, immigrants, politicians, etc., I know even less than when I first came to Israel. You know that adage, “two Jews, three opinions?” Well imagine this, but on the proportions of national pandemic.
If you’re looking for answers, you will not find them here. You will discover no such ancient secret mysteries about who you are as a person or where you come from. What you will discover though, is a thirst for knowledge you had no idea you were thirsty for in the first place. If you are opinionated, like me, you will be confronted with the inconsistencies in your belief system. You will hopefully do the same to someone else. If you’re not opinionated, you probably will be by the time you leave. But most importantly, each and every birthright participant will leave Israel with one thing in common: curiosity ablaze, and an unyielding desire to learn more.