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Birthright Buzz

Birthright Buzz

I was a proud Jew, but until I experienced the wonder of Israel, I had no idea what being Jewish meant.

by Jill Blum

For five years I had signed up for birthright Israel trips, then canceled due to fear. "Next year it will be safer," I thought, "next year the Israelis and Palestinians will find common ground ... next year."

And suddenly I was 26 and there was no more "next year." The trip is for 18- to 26-year-olds; I could never afford to go on my own or through my synagogue. I have worked full time since I was 18, going to school part time throughout.

So I filled out the form again. This time I was going, no matter what. And why? Because I was living up to all the Jewish stereotypes... it was a free trip.

I was raised Reform, went to Hebrew school three times a week, became a bat mitzvah and stayed to get confirmed. I was proud, but had no idea what being Jewish meant. To me it was arguing with professors at college when the High Holidays rolled around, explaining to proselytizers that I don't believe the messiah has come, being the underdog of religions, and running around on Passover between my parents' Seders.

Besides, my family is almost completely blended. My first cousins and half-brothers married non-Jews. Only one of four sets of the kids are being raised Jewish. My father is now married out as well. And my sister converted to Catholicism a few years ago.

After attending two Masses for siblings' weddings, I considered my commitment to Judaism. I try to celebrate the High Holidays and to keep Passover. But beyond that, what do I do? I moved back to Pikesville from Mount Vernon, got a job at the Jewish Times, went to yahrzeit services with my Mom ... and then continued my secular modern life. I go out on Shabbat, I eat treife, I have tattoos.

In eight days of speed-touring, I learned more about Jewish history than in 13 years of Hebrew school.

Then I went to Israel. I selected the Livnot U'lehibanot trip for the focus on nature and environment. A week later, an e-mail told me the trip was full; try again next season. So I went to the birthright Israel Web site. First on the list was Aish HaTorah, so I applied. I had never read about the group, and it turns out neither had most of the people on my trip.

It was beshert.

The whole trip was filled with Jews more secular than observant, more cynical than optimistic. While ranging in age from 18 to 26, the gap disappeared instantly as we all experienced the wonder of Israel for the first time.

I am the first to mock anyone who would call any country a 'wonder,' but there is no other word to describe planting a tree in Israel with your own hands, setting foot upon Masada, standing by the waterfalls in Ein Gedi, floating in the Dead Sea covered in mud, sitting in Israel's independence hall and hearing the recording of "Hatikvah" being performed in 1948, touring Jerusalem's ancient Temple Mount tunnels, Shabbos at the Kotel, becoming lifelong friends with 39 "strangers," and so much more.

Everywhere we went, everyone was Jewish. There was no need to assimilate or blend, a skill I was once so proud of. If you said oy vey, no one would look at you funny. Everywhere, we found historical or religious significance. In eight days of speed-touring, I learned more about Jewish history than in 13 years of Hebrew school.

All of this is with great thanks to Aish HaTorah, Routes Tours, our guide Barry Goldfisher and his lovely family, our excellent guard Ran Farhi and our midrachim, Sarah Castelo, Emily Lerer and David Arenson.

I fell in love with this land, and these people. There is an unseeable force flowing throughout Jerusalem; the energy buzzes at all hours.

At night, when I couldn't sleep, knowing I was in this brand new country, the birthright of our people, I would sit on the hotel's patio and just listen. I found my answers there, about being Jewish and what it means to me: survival, love, respect, honor, courage, Torah, and God.

Find out more about Aish birthright programs.

This article originally appeared in the Baltimore Jewish Times.


February 5, 2005

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Visitor Comments: 10

(10) Sandra Hersh, February 16, 2005 12:00 AM

Birthright Buzz by Jill Blum

Jill's article had a real spirit of its own. I commend the steps she is taking to learn more about Torah judaism and I pray she will go "from strenth to strength" in this endeavor.

(9) E. Simon, February 13, 2005 12:00 AM

Two of my grandchildren attended the birthright program, and they got so very much out of it. I thank you so much for this - as I well know going to Israel is so inspiring, I just can't describe it. Keep up the good work for our young people. E. Simon

(8) Anonymous, February 12, 2005 12:00 AM

So happy for you!

You found at 26 what I had to wait til
age 44 to discover. May you be blessed
to grow in your discovery of Judaism.

(7) Anonymous, February 9, 2005 12:00 AM

Welcome home, sister

I grew up in a Modern Orthodox home with a Father who was and is an activist - When I was a child we were shlepped into Manhattan every Sunday to "demonstrate" outside the Russian Mission to the UN" "Let my people Go" I would cry out with all the strength in my 12year old lungs. We were raised with a deep love for Israel and her people.
When I was 17 I went on my first trip to Israel with the organization, American Zionist Youth Foundation and spent several weeks on a Kibbutz, the summer after the Yom Kippur war.
My initial fear and terror was not of terrorists but of........all my life I was raised to love Israel, the land her people - the whole package....what would happen if I "hated my trip" - it would negate everything I was ingrained to love.
I should not have worried!........
I remember picking Grapes in the vineyard and when no one was looking - bend down and kiss the holy earth of Israel. My trip was phenomenal.

Jill - we are all connected - all Jews to our land. It is not a coincidence that all Jews from all walks of life and from all over the world feel deep in their soul the special attachment we have with the land that G-D gave to us.

They named the tour correctly - It is indeed your "BIRTHRIGHT"!!!

Welcome Home

(6) Jennifer Gersch, February 8, 2005 12:00 AM

Just sit back, relax and enjoy

After reading this article, I feel extremely grateful for my already-extensive Jewish knowledge and experiences. To be able to place most areas of our homeland in an historical and spatial context is very important to me.

Finally, what Blum says about sitting on the hotel's patio is very true: Sometimes, when encountering parts of Israel for the first (or second) time, it was enough--sometimes necessary--to just sit back and take in all that your eyes beheld in front of you.

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