Recently a friend messaged me saying, “I didn’t know you were Jewish.” It’s not that uncommon, my last name is Rivera and usually it only comes up when people ask, “Where’s your family from?” and I tell them that my dad is Puerto Rican and my mom is Jewish.
But this time I just said, “Yes I am.” I didn’t correct her and say, “half Jewish” or “yeah, I am because my mom is Jewish” I simply said, “yes.”
Being Jewish is a new concept for me. It’s not because I just discovered that I am Jewish, I have always been Jewish, but for the first time in my life I feel Jewish in a way that doesn’t make me want to justify myself to other people. Or to myself.
This newfound identity has all to do with my recent travels. At the end of June, I went to Israel on birthright through a company called Israel Outdoors. For those who don’t know, birthright is a 10 day, free trip to Israel for Jews ages 18-26. It is funded by generous donors from around the world and the Israeli state itself. During the trip you visit many cities and historical sites throughout the country as well as interact with Israeli soldiers and students and take part religious services and discussions about the history of the country and its conflicts.
But that hardly captures what this trip really was.
Those 10 days changed my life.
Going to Israel was an amazing experience. Yes it was partly because I was in another country (for the first time) and got to experience everything it had to offer from the Western Wall to the old town of Tzfat to the waterfalls of Ein Gedi to the city life of Tel Aviv. I rode a camel. I star gazed in the desert. I floated in the Dead Sea. But what made Israel for me was the people.
Throughout the trip we were asked the question, “What does your Jewish identity mean to you?” It’s something we talked about and something I thought about a lot through my time in Israel and since coming home. For me, being Jewish is about having a community. I loved meeting so many new people and forming deep bonds over our shared experience. I loved our bus rides with our talks about everything from Hamilton to the Holocaust and debating Jewish culture vs Jewish religion at 2 am. I loved sharing meals and hearing stories about what it means to be Jewish in America today, especially when the stories were vastly different from my Jew filled New York upbringing. I even loved being hot and tired and dirty and hungry all the time.
Actually being in Israel is an experience I can hardly describe. It was strange being in a place I had heard so much about on the news and feeling safe (or as safe as I do in the U.S. with violence our country is facing lately). It reminded me so much of home because of the varying terrains and the amount of people who speak English and was foreign all at the same time with the food and the culture and the way the everything shuts down on Friday nights for Shabbat. It made me reevaluate how I thought of the world and the country and where I came from. The whole trip was more of a learning experience than a vacation and challenged me in ways I never thought possible.
If you are eligible go on birthright, go. I can’t tell you enough. Go go go go go. I was hesitant at first, I didn’t feel Jewish enough, I didn’t think I would like anybody, I was afraid and had so many excuses, but now I can say that it is one of the best decisions I have ever made.
Even though I still don’t know Hebrew or the songs or dances or most of the prayers, I still left Israel with something valuable. A feeling. A feeling of love and fondness and connection to a place halfway around the world. Is it perfect? What country is? Certainly not ours, but it is a place that helped me discover more about myself and for that I will always be grateful.