"Tell me about your Jewish background."
There were days I asked that question what felt like 100 times, but each time the words left my mouth, I always anticipated what I would hear in return from the person on the other end of the line.
This past February, I worked as part of the Birthright registration crew for Shorashim, an amazing organization headquartered here in Chicago. I took my Shorashim trip to Israel in the summer of 2007 and the memories of that adventure still flicker brightly in the back of my mind.
The trip to Israel was my first taste of life abroad, an introduction to Israeli culture, to a culture other than my own. It was all of the things it promised to be prior to takeoff and much more. It was equal parts fun, mesmerizing, challenging and ultimately, uplifting. Those 10 days traversing across the land of milk and honey certainly left an indelible mark.
Registration entailed answering phones, reaching out, conducting a whirlwind of "brief five-minute phone interviews," and it was invigorating. An opportunity to simply talk to people about why they want to go to Israel, where they come from and what they're up to? Please. Sign me up. I'm chatty. It's a fact of my life.
Most people were perfectly pleasant. Some people really stood out. When I heard heartfelt stories of how they came into their Judaism, how their families immigrated to the U.S. or Canada, hearing the spirit and joy with which they regarded their Jewish upbringing thus far and how exciting the prospect of going to Israel for them, it was hard not be awed, even a little overcome by their passion and heart.
Talking with so many young people from all over the country, I was reminded that it takes all kinds. You know? That unique, grounding feeling that everyone is so different, yet we're all the same. There is a powerful thread that ties us all together, an unspoken bond of growing up Jewish, of being Jewish, no matter if we are observant or grew up not knowing very much about the religion.
A spark exists -- dormant and waiting to ignite in some; brilliantly shining in others -- that unites us all; a preternatural understanding that defies articulation; knowing someone, without really knowing someone at all. I could go on. It's real, and it's special. It's not about being "religious" or "spiritual." It's the thought that in this world, it's somewhat of a feat just to "be" Jewish at all, in all of its lovely iterations.
To the kids (ahem, young adults) heading off to Israel this summer, this season and hopefully many seasons to come, I wish you all the luck in the world in discovering something small, or something huge, about what being Jewish means to you. The opportunity to visit the country can have a lot of implications, political or otherwise. But at this age, on the cusp of real live adulthood, focus on what's important to you and use that as the lens to view this experience. It doesn't need to be a serious, soul-searching journey. It could be the most fun you've ever had. It could be a religious awakening; it could be the exact opposite. The point is, make it yours.
Talking with would-be participants and sharing my stories of a trip eight years in the past felt easy and comfortable, as if I'd just returned from Ben Gurion Airport. To be able to breathe new life into a treasured moment in time is an uncanny happening, one that I'm really grateful for. It's also a testament to how things never unfold quite how you think they should, but it's the unexpected opportunities that can bring about the most contentment.
Oh! And if you're 18-26 and haven't been on Birthright yet, go, go, go! (P.S. Shorashim really is awesome. Believe me, I'll tell you all about it).