CUMBERLAND – My Taglit-Birthright Israel experience began when I stepped off a crowded El Al airline flight onto Israeli soil earlier this summer.
The first few moments in the airport were surreal. I could not believe that I was about to experience a country that I knew only through Hebrew school texts, newspaper headlines and other media coverage. The idea of Israel was intangible to me, a conceptual abstraction in my mind. It would take just 10 days for my feelings to completely shift – for Israel to become my spiritual home. My experience in Israel marks the beginning of a journey that has helped me discover the memory of our people, the sanctity of our homeland and my personal Jewish identity.
Birthright participants find their moment of spiritual connection while in Israel. For many, it may occur at the Western Wall, atop Mount Masada or at Yad Vashem. While these sites moved me, Avraham Infeld’s speech truly got me thinking about my connection to Judaism. Infeld, an educator and president emeritus, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, offered Birthright participants his unique viewpoint on Judaism, claiming that it is not just a religion. Instead, Infeld argued that Judaism is a culture, a way of life. Initially, Infeld’s claim didn’t register in my mind; after all, I had known Judaism to be my religion for my entire life.
Using the “five legs” of Judaism: memory, family, covenant, Hebrew and Israel, Infeld argued that if each Jewish person were to adopt just three of the five legs, we would all be connected. However, this connection would not be a religious one, but rather a cultural one. Our people have become one by our common past and shared future, both of which are shaped by memory, family, covenant, Hebrew and Israel.
My Birthright experience helped me connect to the Israeli “leg” of Judaism. Upon our arrival in Israel, people at the airport excitedly exclaimed, “Welcome home.” In my life, I felt as though being Jewish offered a sense of belonging.
Infeld’s speech helped me to understand more about my personal Jewish identity. As a child, I attended Hebrew school, observed Jewish holidays and celebrated Jewish traditions. It was my understanding that I was Jewish because my parents, grandparents and ancestors passed the religion on to me. Traveling to Israel challenged my former viewpoint and has allowed me to recognize that Judaism is much more than a religion. It is a way of life.
Alysa Redlich (firstname.lastname@example.org), a rising junior studying to become a pharmacist, will be URI Hillel’s education chair this fall.