Since I was old enough to understand culture and religion, let’s say 20 years, I’ve identified as a Jew. But in the last 10 years, I’ve neglected one of the most crucial activities young Jews must do – education themselves about their religion, culture, customs, and history. Last year I worked on my relationship, this year I work on my religious and ethnic identity with a trip to the holiest land of all.
Let’s back up. I was raised as a reformed Jew. I spent my weekends in Hebrew school at our synagogue, learning about the Jewish holidays and customs. In the fourth grade, every Wednesday afternoon I learned Hebrew in preparation for the Bat Mitzvah that I never actually completed (though I did get close). Judaism was a significant part of my upbringing, and every holiday was celebrated in one way or another, either at home or at shul.
Once I had outgrown my synagogue’s own education program, I was sent to the new and modern Jewish community center to take classes for confirmation. My religious peers cared more about chasing boys and screwing around in the back of class than learn about the history of our people. I got fed up and dropped out of my Jewish education.
By the time I made it into high school, it was rare to find me at synagogue other than for the high holy days. By my junior year, I had stopped going to those services too. I was struggling with forming some sort of relationship with God and feeling deeply tormented by my past let-downs with a higher power. I felt that Judaism didn’t offer any guidance.
A few years later and looking for a sense of community when I got to university, I joined my campus’ Hillel. I met a few friends, learned a bit more about my religion, and had a lot of fun. On the other hand, I encountered a lot of cliques that made it hard to feel included. As meetings and events became more about people’s drama with one another and less about actually connecting to our faith, I stopped going altogether.
Give or take a few years, that leads me here. I’ve done my best to keep up my Jewish traditions, which at this point just means lighting the Hanukkah candles, making latkes, and maybe eating some matzo at Passover.
Aching for a way to really understand the significance of everything that Jews do, I signed up for Birthright this year. It’s a 10 day trip to Israel to see the holy sites, explore the country, and, most importantly, learn about the history and significance of our people. To me, it’s a way to pick up where I left off in my religious education in a setting that’s far more meaningful than sitting in a fancy community center with a bunch of ambivalent teenagers.
I’ve been told by everyone who has gone on the trip before me (my cousins, most of my friends, several colleagues) that it is life-changing. I really hope that’s not an oversell. I don’t think it is. I couldn’t be more excited. I leave in May, and I really hope I come back with more than just a few souvenirs.