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Luiz Gandelman
(He/Him) Unapologetically Jewish, Latino, Israeli, Zionist, and Liberal.

How Judaism and Zionism Helped Me Find Myself

Visit to the Kotel with Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim on February 8, 2022. (Luiz Gandelman)

I have always grown up in a Jewish household. My entire family and extended family is Jewish. Growing up in São Paulo, Brazil while being Jewish is an interesting experience. The tight knit São Paulo Jewish community made it feel like I knew everyone. My pediatrician was the son of my dad’s pediatrician. The owner of the butcher shop where everyone bought meat was the dad of one of my dad’s best friends. Every name sounded familiar. Jewish Geography was taken to a whole other level. All of that changed when I moved to America.

I was 8 years old and spoke a very broken but fairly sufficient English when I moved to Florida. I enrolled in a secular private school. My class had 3 other Jewish students. My school placed Hanukkah decorations during the holiday season. I felt included. My parents placed me in Hebrew school, where I was surrounded by other Jews. My Jewish identity had always been there. My family lit Shabbat candles every week. We went to temple on the High Holy days. My house was filled to the brim with Judaica. I even attended Ramah sleep away camp in the summer. But being Jewish was just one thing about me. It had about the same weight as me being Brazilian or me liking Star Wars. I traveled to Israel in 2018 and had my Bar Mitzvah. Considering I am half-Israeli, Israel had always been a topic in my house, but I had never thought too much about it. The Jewish community in America is much larger and consequently, not as tight knit. Despite this, however, I always had a community.

My Bar Mitzvah at the Kotel in 2018. (Luiz Gandelman)

Everything changed in 2020. Not just for me, but for the entire world. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, I expected 2 weeks off of school. 2 weeks turned into 4. 4 weeks turned into a year. My parents were very cautious with Covid, so I spent almost all of my time in my house. With the stress of the pandemic and remote learning, I seeked shelter in my room. I binged Star Wars among other shows. Played geography quizzes online. The few times I left my room were to go on a bike ride or eat lunch or dinner. I barely spoke to anyone, let alone my friends. This monotonous and deadbeat routine brought out mental health challenges I never knew existed. I easily described it as the worst period of my life. My grandmas and cousins were all thousands of miles away in Brazil. My friends unable to see me due to Covid. When the election rolled around, I began hyper-fixating on politics. It was a breath of fresh air from the monotony of my daily routine.

Going to a private school in Florida means a large conservative population around me. My dad had always raised me with the idea of Tikkun Olam. He heavily critiqued ignorance and bigotry, and taught me about civil rights and equality. These views led to me being heavily opposed to Donald Trump and his ideals. I spent hours each day debating classmates over text about politics. I still debate people online to this day. I’ve been told to go back to Auschwitz over anonymous messages. I’ve been cursed out in school hallways. People resorted to anything but a political rebuttal. I debated in support of fighting climate change and allowing abortion, and equality and masks. One thing was missing: Israel.

I am a climate activist and was one even before Covid. As I grew my political Identity, I found Israel to slowly inch towards the center of it. Judaism was slowly pushing its way to the center of my life. It all started with Jewish Student Union (JSU). When JSU (NCSY’s public and secular private school branch) reached out to me to start a club at my school, I expected very little. What ensued quite literally changed my life.

I am someone who struggles with Depression and anxiety. These challenges were exacerbated tremendously by the Covid pandemic. Although the worst period of my life was not 2020 as I previously thought; it was 2021.

May 2021 can be clearly characterized by a wide variety of things. The first that comes to mind was Operation Guardian of the Walls. I watched in horror as Israel was bombarded by thousands of rockets. I will never forget the air raid sirens while on FaceTime with my friend in Israel, or the constant buzzing from the red alert app as I ate dinner with my friends. The worst, however, was social media. I unfollowed nearly 300 people on Instagram, ranging from celebrities to politicians, to former friends and even activism accounts. I spent close to 6 hours daily typing and debating and posting stories on instagram. I was doing next to nothing, especially when compared to the IDF soldiers (Some of who are friends of mine) who were deployed to the border and ready for combat.

It still felt like I was fighting a Goliath. I managed to talk most people out of anti-zionism but it was still painfully difficult. It hurt to see tons of friends posting false infographics demonizing Israel and some even demonizing Judaism. I was appalled as I saw both my best friend and ex-girlfriend posting anti-Israel infographics. I explained the situation to both of them, and my best friend apologized and began looking into the situation on a deeper level, leading to her even becoming a supporter of Israel. My ex-girlfriend along with countless friends remained silent or continued vilifying my nation. I still talk to some of them, but it is difficult to see them in the same light.

Summer felt like freedom. I traveled and went to camp for the first time in two years. I got to see friends I missed and made new ones. My life was finally looking up. When school started, however, it all came crashing down.

School stress and antisemitism I faced in school caused my depression and anxiety to consume me. Every day felt like a burden. I felt like a burden. My grades dropped and I had a hard time maintaining friends. Life was difficult. My JSU director began multiple different initiatives which she wanted me to be a part of. I became regional president, a Holocaust educator, Israel advocate, and even did outdoor community service, all through JSU. I noticed that this made me happy. I met some of my best friends through JSU. All of the JSU advisors and staff I interacted with impacted me in the best way possible. I noticed that being in a Jewish space helped me feel complete. I felt at home surrounded by people who share this one common thing with me. This motivated me to join BBYO, begin attending Religious school at my temple, Join AJC Leaders for Tomorrow, and NCSY among others. No experience was perfect, but I love every Jewish group I’ve gotten involved in. And while secular organizations like the Youth council of my village and the local Youth Climate Summit had beyond surreal positive impacts on me, nothing felt the same as Jewish groups.

With other leaders from Florida at a JSU Conference in October 2021. (Luiz Gandelman)

I began praying Shacharit every morning, which always helped me start my day positively. This led to me praying three times daily and becoming what some of my friends jokingly call “obnoxiously Jewish”. Becoming so involved in Judaism strengthened my Zionist activism and identity, which lead to Zionism being one of the main topics of my activism. I also faced antisemitism on a regular level, both at school, online, and in public. This only made me more proud to be Jewish. Prayer made my heart feel good. Jewish youth groups and activities kept me busy and made me feel proud and productive. Finding people that are like family to me made me feel like I wasn’t so alone after all. My parents supported me thoroughly. This only drove me forward.

Praying Mincha in Malé, Maldives over winter break. (Luiz Gandelman)

On New Years eve of 2021, a little moment changed my life. I was flying back home from spending winter break in Dubai. The UAE only recently became a place that we could travel to. I prayed multiple times in public during my stay in Dubai and to my grateful shock, did not have any negative experiences. That was until New Years eve. I was praying Kabbalat Shabbat at a small corner in Dubai’s international airport. My dad, concerned for my safety, watched from a distance. About halfway through my prayer, a man began pointing to me and yelling in Arabic. My dad watched and went to warn me. Before the man came near, Dubai airport police and Staff held him back and calmed him down. He continued yelling and motioning for another 5 minutes as I finished praying and stared me down as I walked past him to leave. This made me consider whether I should continue praying in public. It had the complete opposite effect. I decided to wear a Kippah full time. I wore one in public in America and did not encounter any issues. The closest thing to an issue was a homeless man shouting “Shalomie homie” as I walked by in the street.

In November of 2021 I made a decision that changed my life. I decided to go on Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim (TRY). A friend who went to said program told me it was the best experience of her life. TRY is a Ramah program to do a semester of High School in Israel. I jumped at the idea of studying abroad in my homeland and getting to experience living there with other Jewish teens. The program is far from over at the time of writing this, but I am having a beyond amazing time so far. I instantly clicked with my counselors and classmates and I feel at home here in Jerusalem. Leaving my entire life behind to come study abroad in Jerusalem has been wild and exciting, but I wouldn’t change it.  When I return home, I know everything is gonna look very different. Despite that, I am ready to return to my extracurriculars and my Jewish community and for the first time in years, have found my purpose. That purpose is Zionism and Judaism.

What lifted me from my lowest point and helped me finally find a sense of purpose and belonging was my Judaism and Zionism. My faith in Hashem and my love for my religion and my nation led to me becoming more involved and feeling accomplished. My Israeli passport and my Kippah can often put me in danger, but they’re a large part of my identity. I still deal with depression and anxiety and often times I still feel down, but I no longer feel alone. I found a huge Kehilah, or multiple to be exact. I now have hundreds of friends all around the world who have this one big thing in common with me: being Jewish. My advice to any Jewish teen who is struggling with their faith, or feeling disconnected from the community, would be to get more involved. Join youth groups like BBYO or NCSY or USY and countless others. Become more involved with your Shul. Look into volunteering and Tikkun Olam. Judaism and the Jewish community not only changed my life, but actually saved it. I can proudly say that being Jewish and Israeli is what helped me find that inner purpose and finally feel like I have found myself.

About the Author
Luiz Gandelman is a 16 year old student originally from São Paulo, Brazil, who lives in Miami, Florida. He is currently taking part in Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim. He is involved with multiple Jewish and secular youth groups and political organizations. Luiz is a big basketball and Star Wars fan and an avid scuba diver. He is also a fan of geography, politics, history, and anything of the sort. Most importantly, he is a proud Jew.
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