I had a very Jewish childhood. For the first ten years of my life, I attended Jewish day school, Jewish sleep away camp, weekly Shabbat services at a conservative temple and participated in youth group events. Pretty much all of my friends were Jewish, simply because my whole world was Jewish. When I learned how to read and write in English, I simultaneously learned to do the same in Hebrew. Every year I’d learn more and more about Jewish holidays (I can clearly recall watching “The Prince of Egypt” during many Passovers) and I still remember the words and melodies to Jewish songs and prayers. One of my favorite childhood memories is sitting in temple on Yom Kippur, when the congregation doubled in size, and hearing everyone’s voices blend together into one massive, powerful wall of sound. I’ll also never forget taking a Torah trope class with my mom when I was 9, and how awesome I felt the first time I read from the Torah at a young age, or learning how to bench at Camp Ramah in Ojai, California, and all of the funny jokes and hand gestures that accompanied the birkat hamazon. I had a very Jewish childhood, and I loved everything about it.
After 2nd grade, I switched from one Jewish day school to another, where I had a very different experience: I went from having friends and a loving community to being bullied and alienated. T’filah became less about the prayers for me and more about being in a room of people who picked on me for being unlike them. The trauma of being bullied became deeply associated with my Jewish identity, and sadly I felt like I needed to get out of it all to start fresh. Luckily things got better, I switched schools after sixth grade to a secular (and extremely progressive) middle school. I took this new beginning as a chance to broaden my identity and explore new sides of myself. I found great comfort in the performing arts (I even traded out summers at Camp Ramah for a performing arts camp in upstate New York) and was in a place where being different was cool, so it was a very satisfying change. It was here that I learned that the majority of the world is not Jewish, and that there’s a difference between Christianity and Catholicism. I had a Bar Mitzvah in 7th grade, because I still belonged to a temple and it was the thing to do. I took the chance to further express my musicality by duetting with my cantor during some of the prayers, which made the process fun, but I mostly saw that day as my last religious obligation in Judaism. I wasn’t in Hebrew school, was now “a man” and could make my own decisions as far as my practice of Judaism, and so that was pretty much it for me.
As I got older and more mature, I noticed that most of my friends at this new school connected to Judaism in one way or another, which made me feel more comfortable acknowledging that I was part of the club. My involvement in Judaism through high school remained predominantly secular – I’d attend high holiday services at temple but would volunteer in the daycare program to shy away from the actual prayers. This apathy towards spiritualism in Judaism stuck with me as I left for college. College in general has been very freeing for me – I’ve gained much more self-confidence and have been able to find a better balance in what makes up my identity. During my freshman year, I found out about this free trip to Israel for Jews (Birthright) and when many of my good friends signed up to go sophomore year, I decided to sign up as well. What happened during those ten days was very interesting, and also very unexpected: Birthright gave me a space away from everything at home to put my Jewish identity at the forefront and reflect on what that meant to me. It was there I discovered that buried deep down, I really missed my Jewish identity, the feeling of belonging that I got from being in temple and the voice I felt that I had through t’filah. It was as if something sparked inside of me, something important, but I had no time to really let it sink in and affect me – it was only ten days after all, and I was already so busy riding camels and climbing Masada with my friends.
Luckily I made the decision to come back. I already had plans to study abroad for the fall semester of my junior year, and I recognized that I need more time to experience Israel and investigate my Jewish identity. I chose to attend Tel Aviv University because the classes sounded interesting and engaging and I didn’t spend any time in the city while on Birthright (also what’s better than a relaxing semester near the beach?). Once I got here, I discovered a program called Voyage to Medicine, which allows undergraduate pre-med students to take classes, do research, see surgeries and shadow doctors at Assaf Harofeh Medical Center, as well as volunteer on Magen David Adom ambulances, and I managed to switch into it. I’ve been in Israel now for four months and can truly say that I’ve found a new place to call home. When I walk through Tel Aviv, I know my way around the streets, where the tastiest food is, how to take public transportation, it’s like I’ve been here for years. I’ve learned so much about the people, and the puzzling combination of the calm/relaxed/”sebaba” mentality and being rushed/urgent/without patience. I’ve embraced the harsh weather conditions of 70-and-sunny in November and have noticed the stark contrast between the high-tech developed buildings across the street from the poor, struggling neighborhoods. I’ve connected to Israel and it’s complexities and have therefore felt more strongly connected to my Jewish identity.
This past week, I attended the General Assembly for Jewish Federations of North America held in Jerusalem. When the counselor from the administrative office at Tel Aviv University first asked me to go as a MASA representative, I had no idea what she was asking me to go to. I just figured that whatever it was, it’d be a fun, free six days in Jerusalem. I agreed to go with no expectations or prior knowledge of anything and had so many questions that I was almost embarrassed to ask: What’s MASA? What’s a Federation? What goes on at the GA? Is it just a giant room filled with Jews schmoozing? I showed up at the Jerusalem Gold Hotel on Thursday and soon discovered that I was the only person not just from my program, but from my university. I quickly learned the basics about Federations, how they traditionally have supported Jewish groups and organizations mostly just by funding them, and how their goal moving forward is to engage more young North American Jews in Jewish life. I found out that the GA is not just a place for Jews to mingle with old friends, but to engage in discussions about Jewish life, both in the Diaspora and Israel, and the issues we all face. I now know that MASA doesn’t just write checks, but is an umbrella organization with over 200 programs that is sending over 11,000 people to Israel this year alone.
I was one of 50 “Masanikim” in the MASA delegation at the GA. Everyone in the delegation came from very different programs, and in the few days before the GA that we met, it became clear how diverse this group really was. We all came from a variety of states (and countries), Jewish backgrounds, religious beliefs and priorities, and had different expectations and visions for the future of Judaism. Everyone had such poignant things to say, adding depth and dimension to every discussion and Q&A we had. I was so proud to see that this was the group of young Jews representing our generation’s voice at the GA.
I learned a great deal from the panels and talks I attended. I was riled up and motivated by learning how Israel is the only democracy that imposes marriage restriction laws on its citizens, and what impact that has on not just Israeli Jews but on the majority of Jews of the Diaspora. I was inspired by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks to ask the question “why” more, and by a panel of speakers on the integration Jews and Palestinians in schools who made it seem like coexistence and peace is possible. But it really was my peers from the MASA delegation that impacted me the most and gave me the most to think about. I don’t think I can find enough words to describe how greatly this group inspired me. Hearing everyone speak and offer such honest, personal perspectives made me look at myself and my own Jewish identity and wonder “what am I doing here?” In whatever little free time I had, I dug into my own Jewish journey, uncovered some hidden feelings and was able to fall back in love with being Jewish. I’m grateful for the experiences I had at the General Assembly with my MASA peers; if they are the voices of our generation, then I am very hopeful for the future of the Jewish people.