Sarah Schlesinger: The Power of Israel, A Birthright Experience

Sarah's Photo

Sarah says: “This is when I knew I was in love with an entire country”

Birthright Israel: A Before and After Perspective

You know that I am a huge fan of Birthright and the impact I believe it will have on the Jewish community. I wanted to bring you a firsthand account of what it is like to go on Birthright, from the before and after perspective.

I asked Sarah Schlesinger to write about her experience. This is the first installment. Stay tuned for the second once Sarah returns.

Note that Sarah is both a very average and rather unusual Birthright participant. She fits the mold of who Birthright is looking to attract as she is motivated toward social causes, yet not quite as Jewish as she wants to be. She is unusual in that most Birthright participants are usually a little younger (I went “late” as well), and not as Jewishly connected as Sarah, who works for the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston.

Meet Sarah Schlesinger

SarahSchlesinger1

I happen to think I have an incredible job. Even though I technically work in the development department of the Jewish Federation of Boston, I don’t ask people for money. I ask them for their time.

I make it possible for people to have meaningful Jewish experiences, whether it is through volunteering, joining a Jewish education program, or traveling to Israel.

And every day, I have this quiet feeling in the back of my head, like I am going to be caught. In my mind, it’s like I am teaching someone how to ride a bike without knowing how to ride a bike.

I am terrified that people will find out that I am not really Jewish.

Truthfully, it depends on who you ask. My father is Jewish; my mother is not. My brother and I were raised with both traditions, but not committed to either one. I did not have a confirmation or a bat mitzvah. We celebrated Pesach and Easter, Chanukkah and Christmas. My parents hoped we would make a mature decision about religion as we grew older.

From a very young age, I identified as Jewish. I read about Judaism, the Holocaust, American Jews in the early 20th century, anything I could find. In college, my brother became a devout, evangelical Christian. I became a Religious Studies major with a focus on Judaism.

But the bottom line is, I did not have a Jewish upbringing. I understood the history of Judaism and I knew the literature inside and out. I thought I had a good grasp on it. But once I started working for the Jewish Federation, I felt like an outsider. It became obvious to me that my OWN Jewish experience was basically non-existent.

I thought the situation was hopeless, and I had to accept the fact that my Jewishness wasn’t good enough for “real Jews.”

I took a trip to Israel to make me understand that everything I had thought about myself and my own Judaism was wrong. I went to Israel to staff a mission with the Federation. This was very clearly not a vacation for me– this was work. It was exhausting and frustrating at times. But despite the distractions, despite the fact that I was there to facilitate the Jewish experiences of the 53 people I was with, I couldn’t deny that I was having a profound experience.

Walking down the sidewalks in Jerusalem, riding on the bus to Tel Aviv, taking cabs around Haifa, sitting on the beach by the Dead Sea in 120 degree heat: everything felt magical and surreal. It felt “right” to me.

Sarah’sPhoto MtOlives

For the first time, I felt that everyone there just accepted the fact that I was Jewish and didn’t care if I had gone to Hebrew school as a kid, or if I had taken part in Hillel in college. I suddenly felt like I had a license to consider myself Jewish.

I spent the 12 hours back to the United States planning how I could get back. It was time for me to have my own Jewish experience. After 26 years, I needed to stop ignoring my own needs and do what I needed to do for myself.

That’s where Birthright comes in. I’m 26, so this is my last opportunity. A friend of mine who went on Birthright and ultimately made aliyah convinced me that this program was the solution I was looking for. I could go to Israel, and instead of having to worry about rooming assignments, food allergies, and last minute itinerary changes, I could just experience Israel for myself.

“Give yourself the chance to have your own Jewish experience,” she said. “Stop avoiding it.”

She was right. She had said what I had been trying to deny all along.

So in two weeks, I will finally get to have my own Jewish experience. I can’t help but think I am going in with an advantage: I was just in Israel a few months ago, I work for a Jewish organization, I studied Judaism intensely in college. Oddly enough, for the first time, I will feel like I am ahead of the game, Jewishly.

SarahSchlesinger2

Admittedly, I am a little concerned about what will happen when I return. I know Birthright changes people. I know my short, busy, distracted time in Israel changed me. I can’t image what this trip will bring. But I also know that I am desperate, yes, desperate, to go back to Israel.

I am not overly concerned about meeting people, either participants or Israelis. About half of the itinerary will cover activities and places I have already gone, but I am looking forward to the other sites, the Negev in particular, because I adore the desert. I am excited to practice my minimal Hebrew. And in all honesty, I am thrilled that this time, it won’t be 110 degrees.

But more than anything, I just want to BE there. At its very core, Israel is just a place, like anyplace else; there are places you love, places that feel right, places where you understand you belong. Israel is that place for me. I can’t wait to be selfish about it– to make it my own Israel.

And I hope when I come back, I will feel much more connected to my work, because now I will have finally found my own Jewish experience.

Recommended Reading

Missed a post? Check out The New Jew’s November archives here or read about the last Israel experience guest poster, Natalie Susman, who went on the Jewish Princess Desert Odyssey to support Israeli children in need through Emunah.

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9 Responses to Sarah Schlesinger: The Power of Israel, A Birthright Experience

  1. amr says:

    Just curious, what was your Birthright experience like? Meeting you when I did I have a good idea of what it was like growing up, but I missed a good bit of your religious and cultural journey from when we went to college until now.

    You can respond by email if you prefer (firstname.lastname@gmail)

    • Moishela from Israel says:

      BS”D
      Discussion with Moishela (with his family)
      A Handicapped child
      3 Cheshvan 5775 (Oct 26, ’14)

      “The Noose Is Getting Tighter”

      The world has absolutely gone mad, absolutely mad. Murder, accidents,weather related deaths, riots, plagues, Mamash a very scary world. Every day something new. Every day something more bloody. Every day more and more deaths. Every day we become more and more frightened.

      The noose is getting tighter and tighter around us, and the worst part about it is that no one seems to feel it except a very few. Very few people feel it at all.Either they don’t want to feel it so they ignore it, or they are really in some very strong daze or under some kind of drug that keeps them from seeing what is happening. It doesn’t even have to be medication, although I would imagine that in the western world at least 50% of the people are on some kind of psychiatric medication. They drug themselves on Gashmius, on materialism so they won’t know, so they won’t feel, so they won’t be afraid.

      What is happening is frightening because the world is beginning to feel the effects of being ruled by a group of absolute maniacs, of people that are evil to their bone. They are planning crazy things and thinking they can get away with it, thinking that they can turn the world into their private domain, that they can take the Jewish people and turn them into Goyim. Their greatest goal that they want to achieve is they want to destroy, to kill nine-tenths of the world population. What can I tell you? We, Yidden are being targeted. Our faith is being targeted, and we must, must come back to Hashem in order to stop it.

      I have dreams, I have such frightening dreams every night. I see cities being blown up. I see all kinds of terrible things happening. I see wild men killing and plundering. I see planes shooting and bombing. I see people dying of thirst and hunger, and I cry and I cry. I am so nervous and so afraid, not for myself – for my family and for Am Yisroel. how terrible, how terrible. I’m not even giving you the details of what I see but it’s very very frightening! I don’t know how to pass on to my fellow Jews through what I am writing, the difficult things we still have to face.

      How can I beg? How can I plead with Am Yisroel to open their eyes, to get rid of the Gashmius, to stop looking like street people, to start looking again like Jews, to start acting again like Jews? I’m talking to the Frum. What else can I say to you? What else can I do? If you read over everything I’ve said to this point, you should already be doing Teshuva in the strongest way, but I see in the streets that people are buying and buying things that are not necessary. I see that they are making fancy parties and fancy Chasunas (weddings) and things that are not necessary.

      I see and I feel that children are growing up to love, to lust after Gashmius. I see how we are eating like gluttons, but have become very very weak in our Mitzvos, and it makes me cry. Now we are facing the most horribly difficult time in history and we’re messing around with nonsense.

      What can I say? What can I do? I’m only a young person with an old head and an old heart, but I can tell you this: you better straighten up fast. You better get your act together, because the suffering is going to be unbelievable if not, and if you take yourself in hand then you can save yourself so much suffering, so much misery. Do you understand? People, do you understand? You can save yourselves so much suffering, but if not it will be unimaginable suffering. I’m begging you. I’m begging you. Put your trust in Hashem not in people, not in science, not in chief rabbis, or in heads of state. Put your trust only in Hashem, only in Hashem, only in Hashem.

      We have to be like the Yidden that left Mitzrayim and spent forty years in the desert. We have to be like that. We have to have that kind of trust of Hashem without question, no matter what happens

  2. Great post. Makes me want to visit again!

  3. thenewjew says:

    ARB,

    You can thanks Sarah for that.

    (Got your e-mail and will respond shortly.)

    Maya

  4. ARB says:

    Thanks Srah!

    Ttyl Maya = )

  5. ARB says:

    oops, I meant Sarah. But Srah does have a nice ring to it.

  6. Iris says:

    I just got back from birthright less then a month and a half ago. It was my first time in Israel ever, and a decision I made on my own. I am also 26 like you, and have a similar back round, but almost zero jewish experience, catholicism turned me off to the bible, i believe.
    Anyway, it was one of the defining moments of my life, especially for my jewish identity. I too, crave going back, and its something that consumes me everyday, it has been so profound and life changing for me. I am in the midst of applying to a four week long independent volunteer program this summer, so I can personalize it, and have a different view of Israel that is not birthright.
    I am excited to read your follow-up!

  7. […] Sarah Schlesinger, former development associate for the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston, anticipates visiting Israel for the first time with Taglit-Birthright Israel, “The Power of Israel: A Birthright Experience” […]

  8. Moishela says:

    BS”D
    Discussion with Moishela (with his family)
    A Handicapped child
    3 Cheshvan 5775 (Oct 26, ’14)

    “The Noose Is Getting Tighter”

    The world has absolutely gone mad, absolutely mad. Murder, accidents, weather related deaths, riots, plagues, Mamash a very scary world. Every day something new. Every day something more bloody. Every day more and more deaths. Every day we become more and more frightened.

    The noose is getting tighter and tighter around us, and the worst part about it is that no one seems to feel it except a very few. Very few people feel it at all. Either they don’t want to feel it so they ignore it, or they are really in some very strong daze or under some kind of drug that keeps them from seeing what is happening. It doesn’t even have to be medication, although I would imagine that in the western world at least 50% of the people are on some kind of psychiatric medication. They drug themselves on Gashmius on materialism so they won’t know, so they won’t feel, so they won’t be afraid. What is happening is frightening because the world is beginning to feel the effects of being ruled by a group of absolute maniacs, of people that are evil to their bone. They are planning crazy things and thinking they can get away with it, thinking that they can turn the world into their private domain, that they can take the Jewish people and turn them into Goyim. Their greatest goal that they want to achieve is they want to destroy, to kill nine-tenths of the world population. What can I tell you? We Yidden are being targeted. Our faith is being targeted, and we must, must come back to Hashem in order to stop it.

    I have dreams, I have such frightening dreams every night. I see cities being blown up. I see all kinds of terrible things happening. I see wild men killing and plundering. I see planes shooting and bombing. I see people dying of thirst and hunger, and I cry and I cry. I am so nervous and so afraid, not for myself – for my family and for Am Yisroel, how terrible, how terrible. I’m not even giving you the details of what I see but it’s very very frightening! I don’t know how to pass on to my fellow Jews through what I am writing, the difficult things we still have to face.

    How can I beg? How can I plead with Am Yisroel to open their eyes, to get rid of the Gashmius, to stop looking like street people, to start looking again like Jews, to start acting again like Jews? I’m talking to the Frum. What else can I say to you? What else can I do? If you read over everything I’ve said to this point, you should already be doing Teshuva in the strongest way, but I see in the streets that people are buying and buying things that are not necessary. I see that they are making fancy parties and fancy Chasunas and things that are not necessary. I see and I feel that children are growing up to love, to lust after Gashmius. I see how we are eating like gluttons, but have become very very weak in our Mitzvos and it makes me cry. Now we are facing the most horribly difficult time in history and we’re messing around with nonsense.

    What can I say? What can I do? I’m only a young person with an old head and an old heart, but I can tell you this: you better straighten up fast. You better get your act together because the suffering is going to be unbelievable if not, and if you take yourself in hand then you can save yourself so much suffering, so much misery. Do you understand? People, do you understand? You can save yourselves so much suffering, but if not it will be unimaginable suffering. I’m begging you. I’m begging you. Put your trust in Hashem not in people, not in science, not in chief rabbis, or in heads of state. Put your trust only in Hashem, only in Hashem, only in Hashem. We have to be like the Yidden that left Mitzrayim and spent forty years in the desert. We have to be like that. We have to have that kind of trust of Hashem without question, no matter what happens, no questions asked. We must know in our hearts and our souls that it’s all for our good, it’s to help us go higher, to help us reach the next stage of Creation which is Olam Habah of Moshiach Tzidkainu, and our journey upwards, to total salvation, to completely become one with Hashem. That’s what I have to say.

    I’m afraid that my words have become useless because people have become used to listening to them, even though they are harsh and they are strong and people see around them terrible things happening, but they are getting used to it. They want their Gashmius more than they want to listen. So I will say a few more sentences to make sure you understand. Please, please do Teshuva. Change your way of life. Become Tzniusdik, the men and the women. Trust Hashem in everything. Don’t go looking outside of your Daled Amos for the Yeshua. The Yeshua is only with Hashem, only with Hashem. In the near future we are going to witness very bloody happenings, very frightening and very bloody. Here in Eretz Yisroel there will be more riots and more trouble, but in Chutz La’aretz it will be really bad, really bad.

    Between now and Chanukah we are going to have a rush of incidents all over the world, that will put great fear into most of the population of the world. You won’t know where to look first, up, down, left, right. Everywhere there will be trouble big big trouble. Hashem is trying to show us that the inevitable must be and that means that we are coming very close to the Geula Sheleima, and the hardest part of this birth is now and therefore you can either have an easy birth or a very difficult one. It’s your choice.

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