The day I first realized that I was truly Jewish was the day I went to Auschwitz. I wasn’t taking the train to the gas chambers or anything but on a March of the Living tour with my Birthright group. What better way for a group of Jewish kids to spend their winter break from college than trekking around concentration camps before finally getting to see the Holy Land?
The truth is, I knew in my mind that I was Jewish from a young age. I was a raised in an Orthodox neighborhood but attended the Reform synagogue. We were like the black sheep; lighting the Shabbat candles before blowing them out and driving to the Indian restaurant. The Orthodox kids could play at our house, but heaven forbid if they ate one of my mother’s cookies. Even with their kind refusal, it was still a bit ostracizing.
When I went away for university, I nearly lost track of any Jewish identity other than taking off the High Holidays and hosting a yearly Seder with some friends. Oh, and that one time I said Kaddish at the funeral of my friend’s goldfish, Coco Peru. So, when I was invited by Birthright to visit Israel during the second intifada, I quipped “It’s a free trip. How can I refuse?” I just happened to get my first pick of ventures which took me to Poland for a few days before hitting the streets of the Land of Milk and Honey.
Auschwitz in December is pretty much what one would expect. Despite layers upon layers of clothes, I was shaking from the bitter cold as I cried hours of frozen tears. How could I not as I looked at the piles of glasses, shoes, wheelchairs, a crematorium, and walls where the firing squads once stood? How could I not mourn for my people, and weep tears of guilt that I was alive and well when so many others were cut off at the prime of life? “It could have been me in the striped pajamas,” I thought, “It could have been us.”
As we ascended the stairs of the tour bus back to our cozy hotel, I heard one of the Orthodox students say to another “They’re not even Jewish” pointing to a group of us. Out of the fifty students on the tour, there were six of us seculars who clumped together at the back of the bus in our own little ghetto. My heart broke more from his accusation than it had that day sobbing through the barracks of Birkenau. Didn’t he realize where we had just been? Didn’t he understand that Hitler didn’t care if we were Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform? He hated and would have killed all of us. From that day on, I’ve willingly worn my “Jude” star upon my heart.
In 2005, I made Aliyah and settled in Tel Aviv, a city known for welcoming Jews of all shapes and sizes. Through a series of exceptional circumstances (another story for another day) I came to believe and accept Jesus as the Messiah. While this realization has brought me a great amount of personal hope and joy, it has certainly led to a few jeers from my neighbors. But this hasn’t stopped me from sharing Shabbat meals with my family and friends, building a Sukkah on my patio, or hosting a Passover Seder. In fact, I feel more a part of the Jewish community now than at any other time in my life.
Last week, I mourned with our Jewish community at the horrendous tragedy in Pittsburgh. I was nearly speechless as I explained what had happened to my nine-year-old daughter, repeating the words of the attacker, “All Jews Must Die!” I don’t want her to live in fear but also don’t want her to be ignorant either of the evils of this world. And then, a day or so later, I turned on the news and my heart sank once again as it had on the bus that day nearly eighteen years ago. A Messianic Jewish man was invited by a politician to say a prayer for the families of the victims, for the Jewish community, and for the country. While I get it, that the political climate in America is insane and that the act might have seemed insensitive to the wider Jewish community, I still can’t begin to comprehend our response. Instead of grumbling a little and moving on with our heads held high, we pointed our finger in front of the entire world and declared, “He’s not even Jewish.”
I am ashamed of us. Ashamed that we toss our own kin to the wolves. Ashamed that we continue to let the religion of Judaism hold a monopoly on who is and isn’t Jewish. Ashamed because I know that any anti-Semitic gunman ready to fire at us isn’t going to stop and question if our mothers are Jewish or only our fathers. He isn’t going to ask whether we are really agnostic or if we practice yoga on Shabbat instead of attending synagogue. He isn’t going to care whether we dawn tefillin or pray to Jesus, Schneerson, or some rabbi on top of a hill on Shavuot. To him, and to the thousands of others like him, we all must die. So, if you are brave enough to stand up in this world and call yourself “Jewish” whether you’re Ethiopian, Indian, French, Polish, Israeli or any other nationality, I’m proud to call you my brother or sister because you are entitled, like I am, to be so.