Connecting to Judaism on Birthright with Rutgers Hillel
By Micayla Wynn, Class of 2017
Five months ago if you would have asked me if I were Jewish, I would have been embarrassed, hesitant, and unsure of my answer. My parents raised me with no distinct affiliation. Although we celebrated every Hanukkah and Passover seder, up until my grandmother passed away in 2009, I had never learned Hebrew or gone to Yeshiva, so I convinced myself I wasn’t a “real” Jew. My mother had pressed for me to do Birthright, but after research I assumed I would have to be confirmed within a Jewish society or community, and I could not fast-track through something so complex. After meeting Rabbi Esther Reed, I applied to go on Birthright through Rutgers Hillel. Who wouldn’t want a free trip to a foreign country that I knew nothing about? I also enrolled in Rutgers Hillel’s Jewish Peoplehood Project to educate myself through a comfortable open discussion among the Jewish community at Rutgers with Rabbi Brandon Bernstein. I spoke to many people who had experienced life-changing moments while on the trip and was still apprehensive to get on that extremely long flight. The morning of my flight, I still couldn’t bring myself to get out of bed. I was not excited. I was scared.
About 48 hours later, I found myself in the Old City of Jerusalem. I touched and stood beneath the Western Wall and said my first real prayer. I walked backwards about fifty steps as I was told it is disrespectful to turn one’s back to the Wall. I viewed the hundreds of people praying in front of me and felt a sudden warmth in my chest. This place was real. And I belonged here. Throughout the next ten days I experienced my first Shabbat services, Yad Vashem, Tel Aviv, the Negev Desert and of course the camels!!!!, Masada, the mud at the Dead Sea, and rafting down the Jordan River. I bargained for jewelry, ate some of the freshest foods, and met incredible people. The history of the land was so rich. Each landmark possessed something important, something that helped to mold and enhance this hot and dry land. I learned simple phrases from the Israeli soldiers on the trip, like “Sababa,” as well as where to locate some of the best fish and chips I’ve ever tasted. We had political, religious, and personal open discussions involving Israel and other countries. Each participant had a story, a Jewish experience and identity which helped me to see that I was not alone. This would soon be my first Jewish community.
It was the last Friday of our trip, and my second Shabbat. I had not really connected spiritually during my first Shabbat at Reformative services so I wanted to try something different. There was a “Musical Option” on the itinerary. I convinced my roommates to try it out with me, and if it was too much, we could leave services early. I expected to watch a musical similar to Rugrats: Passover Edition, but instead I walked in on thirty or so students singing hymns and psalms. We sat down and before long we were singing, dancing, and praying. I couldn’t believe the emotional connection I felt to the people surrounding me, some of whom I had only known for forty five minutes. I had officially welcomed in Shabbat and was excited to feel so connected to something that once was so foreign.
It has been three weeks since I landed back in America. I now wear a Jewish star every day with pride and assurance that I am in fact, Jewish. I am not afraid of my culture or religion. I am extremely excited to delve further into Israel upon my return in August to study abroad for 10 months at Hebrew University’s Dance Jerusalem program. I have connected with friends I know will be with me for a long time, and a country that I respect and care for more than I expected. Birthright is not about how religious you are, or if you can speak Hebrew; but rather it is about experiencing the love Israel has to offer to each of us. The acceptance it brings to your individuality. And the realization that Israel is all of our second homes.