This piece was originally posted in the Los Angeles Loyolan.
Dec. 25, 2014. To most people, this date is significant because it’s Christmas Day. For me, this date has a different meaning. On this day, sometime around midnight, I landed in Israel with 37 other American college students, unaware that I was about to embark on the journey of a lifetime.
The weeks leading up to my departure were a blur and were filled with school, work, sorority commitments and my jobs, so my application for the Taglit-Birthright Israel trip did not occupy much of my attention. I only knew that I had the opportunity to travel to Israel because I was of Jewish heritage. Once I was accepted into a program with University of Arizona’s Hillel, a Jewish on-campus organization, I was excited, but I hadn’t really sat down to think about it.
In fact, I remember talking with my mom a few days before leaving and realizing that I hadn’t even thought about how long the flight was going to be. I was so caught up in last-minute packing (What the hell is a money belt? Do I really need rain boots?) that I hadn’t even considered that I would be spending 15 hours sitting on a plane — something that I had never done before.
Another issue that I was faced with was that I felt like a fake Jew. Although I grew up in a spiritual household, I never went to synagogue, I never went to Hebrew school and I never had a bat mitzvah. In fact, even calling myself a Jew felt like a lie. I’m attending a Catholic school. I’m actually the worst Jew ever.
So when I first got off the plane in Israel, there were many reasons why I felt anxious. I was further away from home than I had ever been before, and I was in a country whose conflicts have made headlines for decades. Also, I was surprisingly jet lagged.
I’m not going to go through every detail of my experience. If I did, I would end up writing pages and pages explaining how beautiful the Golan Heights is and how unbelievably excited I was to ride a camel. However, what I am going to say is the girl who boarded the plane at LAX on Dec. 24, 2014 is completely different than the girl who returned to L.A. on Jan. 5, 2015.
During my 10 days in Israel, I realized that Israel was more similar to the United States than I ever thought. Israel is a melting pot; there were people of every color and every background. I met soldiers with origins in Eastern Europe. I met others with backgrounds in Russia and the Middle East. Despite their different origins, the Israelis were united by a common religion, a common language and a common culture.
I was amazed by the interesting stories of Israel’s history. They ranged from the ancient Jewish narrative of my ancestors to the much more modern account of the creation of the Jewish state. Not only was I able to stand in the Negev desert, where my ancestors once stood thousands of years ago, but I was also able to explore the inspiring stories of Jews in a post-Holocaust world.
This history, combined with other experiences — the most notable being my bat mitzvah in the heart of Jerusalem, braving the falafel ‘line’ in every market (Israelis don’t wait in line, they crowd) and celebrating the New Year with 200 other Birthright travelers and Israeli soldiers — have all impacted my identity.
In just 10 days, I found a part of myself that, subconsciously, I knew was missing. A whole community of Jews opened its arms and took me in. In addition, simply being with other American Jews and comparing stories made me feel at home. I hadn’t previously realized that for a large part of my life I had been an outcast, but being a Jew in a largely Christian society had a profound impact on me. In Israel, I finally found people who had the same identity struggles as me.
I didn’t return from Israel filled with wisdom. However, I do have some advice: Go back to your roots. No matter your religion, race or ethnicity, go back to that place where your ancestors started the long journey that eventually resulted in you.
And to those of you who have any trace of Jewish heritage (I know there are a few out there) sign up for Birthright before it’s too late. Registration for this summer’s trips opened this month. Check out Taglit Birthright Israel’s website and sign up. Birthright is one of the most rewarding gifts you can give yourself.
Caroline Burt is a sophomore Communication Studies major at Loyola Marymount University and is originally from Santa Barbara, CA.
Learn more about Taglit-Birthright Israel: Hillel Trips and register now at freeisraeltrip.org!