By Lilli Martin
The first time I learned about the Holocaust I was in seventh grade. I randomly picked up a book called Number the Stars by Lois Lowry.
Staring down at the blonde haired blue-eyed girl with a Star of David necklace on the cover, my first thought was, “WOW, this girl kind of looks like me.” I always thought my features screamed Gentile descent, hiding any Jewish traits.
I wouldn’t say I was completely unaware of my Jewish heritage; I knew half of my family was Jewish, and that by celebrating holidays such as Hannukah, I was somewhat Jewish myself.
No, I did not attend temple, learn Hebrew, or have a Bat Mitzvah, but hey, everyone has their own definition of what it means to be Jewish in America, right?
What I didn’t understand was why I had never learned about this part of my history before. Why was the plot summary of a book more informative than my own parents?
I started questioning my family about Jewish culture, hoping that they could give me answers, but every response seemed to be a blunt or subtle way of saying, “I don’t know.”
It wasn’t until last Yom Kippur when things changed. I sat next to an older woman who started talking about her second home in Israel. Her enthusiasm struck me, sparking my own interest in the country.
I was curious but knew nothing about the place, absolutely nothing. I could only respond with, “Well, maybe one day I’ll go see for myself.” Oh boy, did this woman look irritated. She replied, “What do you mean? Aren’t you doing your birthright?” My sad and truthful response: “What’s that?”
From that day on, I knew I wanted to apply. After multiple long conversations with my family, I finally convinced them that Taglit-Birthright was a legitimate organization, and that I would be safe. My intuition was telling me to go whether or not they approved; I knew I was making the right decision. Three months, two hundred dollars, and one interview later, I was offered a Birthright spot; thus, the mission to the homeland was officially in progress.
My Birthright group was lucky enough to have ten amazing Israeli soldiers for the full duration of our trip. It was hard to explain to my family that the soldiers were there for a fun and educational
experience—not to bodyguard us from the explicit “dangers” that lurked around every corner.
I shared my first Shabbat with amazing new friends and started to feel a sense of community that I wasn’t used to. I had meaningful conversations with others about what it meant to identify as Jewish in America versus being Jewish in Israel.
Out of the ten days, being in Jerusalem had the biggest impact on me. During our stay, I started to feel a connection with the culture. I felt at home even though I was thousands of miles away from my actual home. More importantly, I felt Jewish.
There were tears, laughter, and ultimately self- growth throughout the trip. I understand now that being Jewish is more than practicing a religion. It is a way of life, acceptance of one another, and ultimately a choice.