My parents would respond: “You’ll understand when you’re older.”
Against my will, I worked toward my bar mitzvah, signaling the completion of my Jewish education. Once I reached my goal, I felt content. I never expected to delve much further into my Judaism again.
Fast forward five years to college, where I heard of Taglit-Birthright Israel. Any Jew between the ages of 18 and 26 has the “birthright” to travel to Israel for free. This intrigued me, but I wasn’t convinced. After a few of my friends went and returned with lives changed, I decided to give it a chance.
As a student at the University of Miami, I could have applied through my campus Hillel. However, my brother was applying through the University of Maryland and convinced me to do the same. At the very least, I would be spending some quality time with my little brother, so I agreed. After the necessary process, my brother and I were set to go to Israel for 10 days starting on May 22.
In the weeks leading to the trip, I was definitely excited, but only because I was traveling to an exotic place for free. After a 12-hour layover in Madrid, we finally arrived in Israel. I felt at ease upon arrival when my tour guide greeted 40 strangers with the phrase, “Welcome home.” Surprisingly enough, for someone who didn’t know why he wanted to go on this trip, I felt something special in that moment.
I paused for a moment to reflect upon the meaningful experience on which I was about to embark. I realized I was in Israel, the most important place in the world for the Jewish people, our homeland.
I cannot express every incredible moment in this space. A few highlights, however, I recount with fond memory. To my surprise, as a Reform Jew, one that had to be dragged to Hebrew school, one of the most powerful parts of this trip was the Western Wall. I felt a deeper connection to
Judaism there than ever before.
My next memory comes at a time of exhaustion. After sleeping, or barely sleeping, the night in a remarkable Bedouin tent, our tour guide woke us up at 3:30 a.m. All I wanted to do was sleep. Instead, we hiked to the top of Masada, a mountain fortress once held by Jews during the Roman period. The Jews atop Masada determined to kill themselves rather than be captured by the Romans and forced to convert. We were able to watch the sunrise at the top of the mountain, a scene I will never forget.
A visit to the mikveh is another best memory. I was able to take a dip in the oldest functioning mikveh in Safed, the home of Jewish mysticism. This gave me a new perspective on my Judaism.
I had no urgency to go on this trip; I simply agreed because it seemed cool and was free. In the end, this trip exceeded any and all expectations. I no longer view this impromptu trip to Israel as a free trip. I view it as a life-changing experience. I am lucky to have had the opportunity to go on this trip, because I found a new part of myself and will make Judaism a part of my life again.
Being in Israel made me realize that everyone interprets Judaism in his or her own way; that’s OK. Israel taught me to be proud of my religion, to be proud of being Jewish.
I now understand why my parents sent me to Hebrew school and thank them for the foundation and encouraging me to reconnect.
Jacob Shapiro is a graduate of University of Miami. He is working this summer at Beth Tfiloh Camp. Full disclosure: Jacob is the son of Clipper City Media Director of Advertising, Stephanie Shapiro.