This is about how Birthright changed my life. Wait! Don’t click away- I swear this is more than selfies at sunrise on Masada or partying in Tel Aviv clubs. I don’t think that my story is unique; I’m writing because I want to share why I’m grateful for being given the opportunity to rediscover the Jewish world and why it matters that other young Jews are too.
I was born and raised in New York City in a Reform family. I had my bat mitzvah and that was the beginning of my formal rejection of Judaism. In my amazing, bustling city filled with people of different races, nationalities, sexual orientations, and religions, I felt that I was being enlightened and educated by denouncing religion in all of its forms. Like so many preteens and teenagers, rejecting the beliefs that my family and our ancestors valued seemed like the best way to assert my individuality. It has taken time to swallow my pride and take a second look at these beliefs, at Judaism, and reconsider its value.
Religion is certainly used as an excuse to commit terrible actions and spread hate, but I have only recently come to truly understand that evil actions are committed by people, not religions. Human nature is to blame, not religion. The nationalist Israeli Jews who murdered Muhammad Abu Khdeir this summer were evil. The ISIL Muslims who executed David Haines, the humanitarian aid worker, were evil. The Christian who murdered Dr. George TIller was evil. The list can go on. Religion is simply a convenient tool for those who wish to harm others.
Many adolescents and young adults look around at the world and see the pain caused by people acting in the name of religion and it disgusts us. We accept science and see its incompatibility with the literal story of Creation. We, especially Jews, often do not have any real understanding of our religion. We view religion as irrelevant to our lives and we reject it. Intermarriage is on the rise, likely in part because young Jews aren’t taught the beauty of maintaining the community. Judaism is dying. This threat isn’t from Cossacks or Nazis or an Inquisition, it’s from internal apathy and a lack of education.
Until I participated in Birthright this past summer, I was completely separated from Jewish life except for when I visit my Orthodox family members in Israel or when my family would gather for a funeral. Judaism wasn’t part of my identity. This summer, I met Israelis that I learned to love and about whom I worry too much, I engaged in political and theological discussions with my peers, and somewhere along one of our beautiful hikes, I rediscovered the purpose, or at least my interpretation of the purpose, of religion: community.
When I got back to my college, SUNY Geneseo, I joined our Hillel. Every Friday night, we pray, we laugh, we sing, and we eat together. For some of us, lighting the candles may be motivated by wishing to carry out mitzvot, but for me, participating in Hillel is more about fostering community. It allows for a meeting of the minds, for people of a shared heritage to come together, to honor our people’s past and to think about how to shape the future with Jewish values of tikkun olam and tzedek.
In my eyes, the Jewish community as a whole- ranging from the haredim to the secular, would benefit from viewing Judaism as more inclusive. The Torah doesn’t have to be, and I would argue shouldn’t be, interpreted literally. Judaism can accommodate all of the different ways we decide to embrace our heritage. Growing up, I would often go to synagogue with my mom to help make meals for the city’s homeless. Helping others, accepting others, and above all, loving others is what my interpretation of Judaism is. Let us read the Torah so we can examine human nature and morality and make ourselves better. Let us gather on college campuses for Shabbos and spend even a few hours remembering who we are. Let us connect with our family in Israel, for whom our hearts yearn. Judaism provides an outlet for discovering and defining ourselves, which I know I struggle with, as do many young adults. Rebrand Judaism as welcoming to young adults, as an open community that can be joined while still holding modern ideals.