This post originally appeared on the Schusterman Foundation blog.
Now that I work in the Jewish community, people always assume that I’ve been a “super Jew” my whole life. In reality, it took a special trip to pique my interest—and experiences thereafter—to land me where I’m standing now.
When I was a kid, my family moved around a lot until settling in exotic Buffalo, New York. That first summer in Buffalo, I spent my days with the other soon-to-be fourth graders at a JCC-partnered Jewish camp in central New York. As fun as shaving cream fights were, I was the new kid in town. Two summers were enough for me.
I attended Sunday school and became a bat mitzvah. After throwing a candy-themed party to celebrate the occasion, attending a few classmates’ b’nai mitzvot and trying Hebrew High school for a few weeks, I checked out of my Jewish involvement. I recall going to a youth group meeting, which I hated, and never returned.
My family and I continued to celebrate holidays with amazing meals, stories and traditions. While I loved this aspect of being Jewish, I didn’t consider myself to be religious or active. When I attended Arizona State University, I continued to join my AZ-based family for holiday meals, but I never even knew that Hillel existed.
It wasn’t until my later years as a college student that my mother mentioned a “free trip” to Israel. Israel? Why would I go there? Isn’t it scary, war torn, third-world? Obviously I lacked education about Israel and it was definitely not at the top of my list of places to visit.
After college, I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the world of entertainment. I turned 25, and my mom continued to suggest that I go on this free Israel trip called “Birthright Israel.” I was still unsure—I worried I was not religious enough for a Jewish trip. I didn’t even have a passport and now I was going to take a 14 hour flight across the world? Then, when I realized that I would soon be ineligible because of my age, I applied.
Needless to say I had a fabulous time on the trip, falling in love with the country and having a little Israeli romance as well. I never imagined that the country could be so beautiful, with such diverse people, and that spending time with other Jews doing Jewish things could be enjoyable. I returned to LA in tears, wishing that I had never left.
Now that I was back, I told everyone I knew about my experience. I went to a Shabbat dinner with the LA Federation (which I knew of from the trip orientation). I started hosting Jewish parties–Chrismukkah (with my Catholic roommate) and Passover seders; both open to friends of all faiths. I learned to cook brisket, noodle kugel and matzo ball soup.
After a year, I quit my coveted job to participate in a Masa Israel program called Career Israel. I loved living in Israel with Jews from around the world, touring the country and getting to visit Turkey and Jordan too.
I soon found that I didn’t want to live in Israel forever, so I moved to Chicago with a few of my fellow participants from the program. After struggling to find work in the world of event planning, I took on a variety of random jobs. I wanted to meet new people in my new city, so I attended a few events put on by Birthright Israel NEXT (now called NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation) and a year later started a fellowship with NEXT, reaching out to Birthright Israel trip returnees and planning programs for them in Chicago. The programs I ran included a challah-baking/platter-painting event, cooking classes and an outing to a Chicago Blackhawks game.
This Birthright Israel alumni network became my own personal community in Chicago. As a NEXT fellow, I had the privilege to staff a Birthright Israel trip with a Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation (JUF) employee with whom I’m now very close. One year later, I applied for a job working in young adult engagement for JUF, and all of a sudden, engaging with 20-something Jews became my life.
Five years ago, I never would have imagined that I would be a “professional Jew.” But today I am lucky to be in that position, meeting Jews of all backgrounds and helping them connect to the community.
There are so many ways to be Jewish in Chicago. For someone like me, who often didn’t feel like I wanted to be part of anything Jewish, I realize that it’s all about finding the right fit for each individual. I can be a Jewish leader without having to fit stereotypes; I can be myself, and in return, I appreciate that everyone has their own way of living Jewishly.
When meeting with people who are not engaged in Jewish life, I try to connect them to opportunities that are meaningful based on their interests. I stay motivated because I know the work I do helps so many people in Chicago feel welcome and find a deeper connection to our Jewish community for those whose paths are as winding as mine.
Elizabeth Wyner is the Young Adult Engagement Associate at Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago (JUF).