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
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.
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.
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.
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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