Here I was, in the Negev desert, and it seemed so surreal. Mountains of sand surrounded me, and the only semblance of civilization for miles around was the set of ingenious yet not-so-comfortable Bedouin tents set up for us to sleep in, with their straw roofs and dusty interiors.
And camels! No one ever tells you that they can roar. I had been looking forward to riding a camel, because to me it seemed that doing so would be the pinnacle of my trip to the exotic Middle East. We’d bop along on a bumpy camel ride, and it would be just like I was in Aladdin. But here they were — dirty, grotesque camels that seemed vicious — not at all what I expected.
In fact, my entire trip to Israel with Birthright was not what I envisioned. Birthright is an organization that sends Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26 to Israel on an educational trip for free. Many colleges even organize Birthright trips through Jewish organizations on campus, so I went with Northwestern and University of Chicago students on what was to be my gift from the Birthright Israel Foundation.
I’d heard stories of people who went on Birthright and had a spiritual experience — they connected with their faith and came back to the States as practicing Jews. I’m Jewish, but I stopped being religious after my Bat Mitzvah. I identify myself as culturally Jewish: my parents make chicken soup on Rosh Hashanah, and we have a nice dinner, but I don’t go to services or have a Passover Seder. I’ve done those things in the past because I learned how to in Hebrew school, and because my parents probably felt that they should keep up with the Jewish traditions that I was being taught. But as I grew older I realized that I had practiced Judaism perfunctorily, without truly believing. I had practiced because I was taught that that’s what I should have been doing.
So while I appreciate the shared traditions that Judaism has allowed me to participate in, I participate in them without much religious attachment. I didn’t go on Birthright to find my faith in this religion, but I did expect that going to Israel would be a far more spiritual experience for me than it ended up being.
After all, we were told over and over again in Hebrew school about the Holy Land of Israel: our ancestors fought for it, and they still fight today for this sacred piece of land not much larger than twice the size of Rhode Island. As a Jew, how could I visit Jerusalem and the Western Wall, the symbol of Jewish persistence that survived since 19 B.C.E., without feeling moved?
Standing in front of the Western Wall with a pen and piece of paper in my hand, ready to write down a wish or prayer to slip in between the bricks as is custom, I had no idea what to wish for. Women prayed with their heads to the wall, and others on my trip slid their notes into the old stones with tears in their eyes. One woman even prayed and cried with her cell phone to the Wall, presumably so that a loved one could virtually pray at the Wall, too. I understood historically why this wall was special, but seeing everyone around me clearly being moved spiritually made me feel like I should be crying and praying, too.
Instead, I felt like I was sightseeing, and that the Western Wall was just another tourist stop on my trip, much like the Dead Sea. We went to the Dead Sea because it was an attraction, not a religious landmark.
In fact, the highlights of my Birthright trip ended up being the activities that were the most cultural and least religious. While climbing Mount Masada and watching the sun rise over the Dead Sea, I felt at peace with myself. Touring the fortress atop Masada and seeing ancient ruins made an impact on me for their historical importance, not for their religious significance.
As I floated in the pristine Dead Sea with my head to the sky, it didn’t matter to me that every cut on my body stung in the salt water. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t cry at the Western Wall or that I didn’t connect spiritually to Judaism. The feeling of serenity I felt while effortlessly floating in a body of water alive only with the bodies of other tourists around me made me realize that I like being culturally Jewish, and nothing more.
My Birthright experience was not at all a letdown, despite the fact that the trip was entirely different than my expectations. While I wasn’t totally convinced that Israel could be a second home to me, (it was a bit alarming to be greeted in Ben Gurion airport with signs that exclaimed, “Welcome Home Birthright Bus 787!”) the country grew on me. And while I struggled to feel at home and connected to a land so unfamiliar to me, I realized that Israel would accept me even if I decided to never go to synagogue.
At Northwestern, when people asked me if I was Jewish, I would feel like an impostor when I said I was. But in Israel, I learned not to be ashamed of being “culturally Jewish.” In fact, I felt more comfortable being culturally Jewish in Israel than I did in the States.
So the next time someone expresses surprise when they find out that I’m Jewish, I don’t need to stutter and say, “Well, sort of.” I can say “yes” without an explanation. I no longer define being Jewish by how many times I’ve been to synagogue or I how well I can recite the call to prayer. Going to Israel made me realize that no matter what I do or don’t do as a Jew, I have an identity and a place in this religion.