How Birthright Israel helped me reconnect with my Jewish community

(And appreciate my Jewish mother)

It has been years since I’ve had a Jewish community. I have Jewish friends, of course, but most of them are secular, like me, and even if they are practicing, we aren’t doing Jewish activities together. In December, I went to a friend’s family Chanukah party in Oakland. It was the first holiday I’d celebrated since before I left for college eight years ago, and I loved it. Not just because there was a gift exchange and brisket, but because it was the first time in a while that I’d been around a group who understood how polarizing it can be to be a Jew in America during the Christmas season, and understood what it was like to be Jewish, however religious or not.

I felt that again on the first full day of my Birthright Israel trip. John, a-participant-turned-friend, made a funny comment about his Jewish mother wanting to join the Bus 32 Facebook group, meant only for those attending the trip – not their parents. Another new friend, Alex, lamented how her Jewish mother signed her up for J-Date without her knowledge. And, as we hiked, more and more stories came out that we could all relate to. Of course, religiously-speaking for some, one is Jewish based on the fact that their mother is Jewish, and culturally it seems to be based on an understanding of the Jewish struggle and a celebration of survival. Yet, somehow, in this group of mostly secular Jews, our Jewishness seemed to be based on how embarrassing our Jewish mothers were and how much we understood that struggle and our own survival.

I’d been nervous about going on Birthright as someone who isn’t very religious and hadn’t been in a synagogue in years. But it turned out that this was a non-issue. I talked to our Israeli participants who had similar doubts, questions, and issues about religion. I had assumed that just because they were born and raised in the Holy Land that they would automatically be super-Jews of sorts. But some of them didn’t fast for Yom Kippur, and some of them didn’t attend synagogue either. We were all Jewish and considered ourselves and each other as such. Our Israeli friends made it clear that though for most of us this was our first time in Israel, it was already our home. It was universally understood that Israel was a home to all members of the global Jewish community, even those of us who had been there just a few days. (It was also understood that embarrassing Jewish mothers were a problem in Israel, too – another universal truth.)

One of the most impactful community moments our group had was Shabbat. We were together without outside stimulation, taking a break from our fast pace, not only of the trip, but of our lives. Coming from the Bay Area, where many of us work way too many hours in fast-paced jobs, I think it was a good lesson about slowing down, disconnecting, and connecting with each other. I am so grateful that this trip has re-connected me to a part I was missing from my life. In a few weeks, I hope to host a Shabbat dinner where my new Jewish community can gather together and do what Jews do best – nosh and gab. (Okay, and maybe pray.)

Taglit-Birthright Israel is a free, 10-day immersive experience in Israel for Jewish young adults, ages 18-26. The Federation has four local trips this summer exclusively for residents of the Bay Area. Registration is open NOW, so sign up today. For more information, contact Jason Harris or call 415.512.6284.

Categories: Israel, Young Adults


February 04, 2016


Hana Nobel