For years, I had struggled with my Jewish identity. What does it mean to be Jewish? Am I practicing Judaism because I want to or because it’s all I’ve ever known? Through my experience on Taglit Birthright in 2019, a free 10 day tour trip in Israel designed to introduce secular Jews to Judaism and Israel, I’ve come closer to answering these questions.
Now, to tell you the truth, I wasn’t very qualified to go on Birthright. Firstly, Birthright runs solely on philanthropists and donations. In order to get the bang for their buck, they cater to unaffiliated Jews. According to their official website, they advertise as “an educational trip that ensures every eligible young Jewish adult around the world, especially the less connected… to connect to their past, present, and future.” I’m a modern orthodox Jew who was raised by two modern orthodox Jews in a community for modern orthodox Jews. Simply put, I’m not their first choice. Secondly, I had already been to Israel. Birthright’s mission is to introduce secular Jewish Americans to Israel, not give free trips to religious girls. Miraculously, I snagged a place on the trip and boy am I grateful.
The plane took off with a turbulent start. The morning of my outbound flight from John F. Kennedy airport in New York, my grandfather passed away. I spent most of my flight regretting the choice to go on the trip, but ultimately, his passing strengthened my drive to find the answers to my questions. What better place to try to understand my Jewish identity than Israel? And who better to keep in mind on my journey to self- discovery than my grandfather, a God- fearing descendent of WWII refugees who lived his life with honesty and integrity?
A Profound Activity
And so I began, with a stiff bottom lip and brave determination, to unpack my identity. One of the first instances that brought me face to face with these questions was when our trip leader set up an activity in the dining hall of our hotel. The activity went like this: a question would be asked, all those who agreed would go to the right side of the hall, all those who disagreed would to to the left, and all those who were indifferent or didn’t know would stay in the middle. The question was: Do you believe Jews should only marry other Jews? Naively, I thought the answer was obvious. Of course, Jews should only marry other Jews! How else will there keep being Jews? To my surprise, 95% of the 40 people on the trip went to the left side of the hall. I stood there, in the middle of the room, in shock. In hindsight, I’m pretty disappointed in myself that I stayed in the middle of the room and didn’t go to the right to defend my position. But give me a break, I was the youngest person on the trip by a long shot and was simply too stunned to formulate a coherent sentence. In my mind, it was simple. According to the Jewish People’s Policy Institute, right now in America (excluding the Ultra-Orthodox population), about 58% of married Jews ranging from age 25-54 are intermarried. Married Jews ranging from age 30-34 hold the highest rate of intermarriage at a whopping 75%. If this were to continue at the rate it’s going, in only a couple of generations, ultra-orthodoxy will be the only sect of Judaism left in America. This is the exact reason Birthright exists, to facilitate an understanding of the importance of a Jewish presence in America. However, after listening to a few opinions from the left side of the hall, I began to understand what being Jewish means to people.
One girl talked about her positive upbringing in an interfaith home. A Christmas tree adorned with blue and white menorah ornaments on Hanukkah, Synagogue during the High Holidays, takeout Chinese food on Christmas Eve: a completely stereotypical Reform Judaism interfaith household. One guy talked about how he feels disconnected from his Jewish grandfather and not really “Jewish” because he didn’t have a Bar Mitzvah, and therefore, he doesn’t feel obligated to marry a Jewish girl. Another guy said he is “more Jewish” than the first guy because he did have a Bar Mitzvah, but he doesn’t believe in God so he’s not really sure what category he’d fall into now and therefore, doesn’t believe Jews should always marry Jews.
What bothered me so much about their answers was how many people thought they weren’t really Jewish because they hadn’t performed the traditional milestones of a Jewish lifecycle. After all, according to the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, if one had only one Jewish grandparent from each parent, he was classified as having Jewish blood and therefore unfit to marry into German society. None of these kids on my Birthright trip would not have been allowed to marry into German society in the 1930s. And yet, here they were, in 2019, saying that they would marry outside of their faith. Of course, non-Jews then are not non-Jews today and we are no longer persecuted to that extent. However, we lost six million Jews in the Holocaust and even more since then due to intermarriage. To me, to marry a non-Jew today is to forget our history. It made me realize just how different my upbringing had been compared to theirs. They did not grow up listening to their grandparents war stories about their struggle to keep their traditions in the camps. I asked myself why would these kids value their Jewish legacy? They didn’t even know if they were considered Jewish. Taking this all in, I began to understand that one cannot answer this question without first defining what a Jew is.
What does it mean to be Jewish?
Is it a race like the Nazis thought? It can’t be, because one cannot convert to a race, but one can convert to Judaism. Is it a religion? It can’t be just that; because according to traditional Judaism, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew, meaning if one is born to Jewish mother, he is Jewish, no matter his belief. Even if he converts to another religion, traditional Judaism does not consider that legitimate; he will always remain Jewish. So if it’s not a tangible thing like race and it’s not an intangible thing like religion, what is it? I’ve come to realize that Judaism is a family. It sounds cheesy, but it is the only solution that solves both problems. One can join a family easily by marrying in and wether or not he wants it to be, the family one is born into, is his family. So that’s really what it’s all about. The question was: Do you believe Jews should only marry other Jews? What it really was asking was: Do you want to continue the Jewish Family?
This question stuck in my mind the entire remainder of the trip. We traveled North to South, hiked Masada, visited Mount Herzl, prayed at the Western Wall and much more. All along, I was piecing together the history of our family. How the Romans, after destroying Jerusalem in 70 A.D., sieged Masada and brought about the deaths of the last community of Judean rebels (960 including women and children). How thousands of eighteen year old boys buried at Mount Herzl died to defend our family’s right to this land. How billions of people from hundreds of generations came from all over the world to pour out their heart at the Western Wall in supplication to a higher power. I realized, finally, maybe for the first time in my life, that, yes, I want to continue the Jewish Family and, no, I am not practicing Judaism because it’s all I’ve ever known, but because I want to.
“The value of identity of course is that so often with it comes purpose.” -Richard Grant
For the record, although I do believe that Jews should only marry other Jews, I can understand and respect people’s choices. In no way do I judge those who think differently than me. After all, everyone has their own experiences and is entitled to their opinion. Similarly, in regards to being considered Jewish, I respect all forms of Judaism and love that there are so many channels to be apart of the family. This article is simply a reflection on my experiences. Feel free to leave a comment!