At the very beginning of the first ever Reconstructionist Birthright trip, our tour guide instructed our group to use the word journey when referring to these 10 days in Israel. Though it sounded hokey, I knew that Birthright wanted all of its participants to leave Israel feeling some sort of impact on their personal development. What I didn’t know was that these 10 days truly would become a journey, not only for myself but also for my fellow young Reconstructionist Jews.
I refer to myself as a Reconstructionist now, but prior to joining this group, I had no idea what a Reconstructionist was. I was placed on this trip by chance due to the cancellation of my first choice. I was raised Reform, but never really felt like it was the best fit for me. All my life I felt like Judaism was thrown at me and I never wanted to catch it. I am now 23 years old; this Birthright journey introduced a community that actually seemed like it wanted me, and so I threw myself into its open arms.
I live in London and currently sing with an Anglican Church choir (for a variety of reasons too numerous to explain here), which distances me from Judaism in the most immediate sense. Throughout my life, being at synagogue never felt meaningful to me, and as a preteen, I reluctantly underwent two years of intensive Hebrew school to train for my Bat Mitzvah. I completed the ceremony and promptly swore off most Jewish activity afterward. Yet, I chose to go on Birthright because I felt I owed Judaism another chance, and who wouldn’t want to take advantage of such a travel adventure?
For the first time during my Birthright journey, I felt reconnected to my Judaism. Fortunately, I have found Reconstructionism to be exactly the kind of Judaism I want to reconnect to—it is progressive, open, welcoming, and liberal. These are features that were demonstrated to me particularly during instances such as the Shabbat service led by a few of my peers; the words “whatever you feel comfortable with” characterized the whole experience. Because Reconstructionism presented me with such unexpected positive experiences, I definitely got more than I bargained for, and feel as though I can return to an authentic sense of Jewish identity.
I got more than I bargained for in other aspects as well—had I not joined this Reconstructionist journey, I think my understanding of Israel in a geopolitical context would have been very different. Because there were certain events that Birthright mandated for our group (such as the visit to the Israeli Innovation Center and the lecture on Birthright’s statistics and goals) that directly contrasted with experiences arranged by the Reconstructionist organizers, I felt as though our group was able to see a well-rounded picture of Israel. Every Birthright trip travels with several Israel peers who showed us their points of view, but so did the citizens of Tayibe, an Arab community within the boundaries of Israel. I felt that this privilege of seeing both sides put us at an advantage and enlightened us in way that many other Birthright groups are not.
I cannot speak for every member of our group, but a general consensus amongst us seemed to be that we were simultaneously pro-Israel and pro-Palestine. An in-depth exploration of what this position means is a subject for another time, but it is worth saying here that this implies being able to criticize the issue from both sides and recognizing that neither side is perfect or justified in everything it does. Essentially, being able to understand the conflict from both sides is vital to working towards a solution. Many of us felt that as American Jews, this conflict was not ours, and we struggled to recognize our place in it. I have a Palestinian friend who eloquently sums up what we need to remember when trying to understand: perspective, context, and history are everything.
One major theme that proved itself to me once again during this journey was how much words have power. As a Masters student getting a degree in Public Relations, Marketing, and Advertising, words (and images) are the tools of my trade—they construct reality. Words can be used to frame, to destroy, to interpret, and to persuade, amongst many other purposes. The tone in which words are used can massively influence the message. Thus, I paid attention to the words used when each point of view was expressed, whether American Jewish, Israeli, or Arab. Is it an action or an aggression? Is it a disputed territory or an occupied space? Whose civilians are framed as “innocent?” Is it the Israeli Defense Forces or the Israeli Occupation Forces? Even the term “birthright” implies a certain point of view. Using certain words express particular opinions, and I found myself trying to be careful while choosing which words I used while in Israel.
I thought I would never have the words to describe what I had experienced, but my instincts as a writer took over. This blog post is only one interpretation of a few different observations I made during and after the journey. My lasting impression is that my Birthright journey is not over. The 10 days I spent on the first ever Reconstructionist trip in Israel are only the beginning of learning who I am, what being Jewish means to me, and how Israel affects my life.