Exactly a year ago, I couldn’t have been doing anything more opposite than what I’m doing today.
You see, right now I’m sitting in my office in downtown Chicago, finishing up my lunch and typing away at my computer. One year ago, I was sitting by a campfire in a Bedouin tent in southern Israel after just getting back from riding camels and donkeys, surrounded by a group of people I hadn’t known before traveling with them halfway across the globe.
Exactly one year ago, I was nearing the end of my Birthright Israel trip.
Growing up, I had never really thought I’d end up going on a trip with mostly strangers to a place I had only heard about at Hebrew School and sporadically in the news. It had never really crossed my mind as something that would be important to me. But when my brother went on his Birthright trip the summer after his freshman year in college, he came back a changed person.
If you asked him how his trip went, he would declare it as the best experience, singing praises not just about the places he went to, but also the people he met and his newfound interest in his religion. Before he left, I would never have described my brother as religious. But he came back from his trip with an entirely new perspective on Judaism.
When it came time for me to go, I was steadfast in my denial that the same transformation would happen to me. Even if it happened to my own brother—the last person I would ever think of to undergo such a dramatic change—I was just looking forward to a free trip and meeting new people.
I can tell you the exact moment that changed.
Well to be fair, I can’t pinpoint the exact moment in time. Everything kind of blurred together after ten days of virtually no sleep and nonstop activity. But I do remember the exact words I heard someone speak to the whole group. Those words hit me with a realization that somewhere along the trip, I had made that same transformation my brother had three years prior.
We had all gathered together for one of our final tie-in sessions (where we would all talk about what we had experienced so far on the trip, our favorite parts, etc.) and someone said, “Being here, in Israel, can really make someone change their priorities from being a Jewish American to an American Jew.”
I had never heard of any phrase like that before. At first I was really confused; I mean aren’t those two classifications the exact same thing? But as this person explained further, they were actually the exact opposite of each other.
To explain: classifying yourself as a Jewish American means you are, at heart, an American citizen, always putting that as your top priority, and you happen to be Jewish too. To call yourself an American Jew shows you put being Jewish as your main priority, it is most important to you. And that, I realized, is what I had become—An American Jew.
I don’t know what did it for me, and when I asked my brother he couldn’t answer either. I think it was the whole experience—the combination of the people I met, the places we went, and the conversations we had. I found myself really invested in my religion all on my own for the first time in my life. No one was forcing me into it, I had no obligations to feel that way; it just came about on its own.
Now, I’m not saying I suddenly became an Orthodox Jew, praying three times a day, etc. But for the first time, I just really cared about being Jewish, and I felt a personal tie to it. I became proud of being a part of this religion.
These feelings didn’t end as soon as I returned home (albeit a week later than I had originally planned. I had met someone on the trip that I became close with, and ended up extending my trip with her to travel all around the country on our own schedule with some much needed sleep added in this time!). When I got back to school in the fall, I continued spending time with the friends I had made on my trip, and subsequently started meeting their friends. Before I knew it, I was going to Jewish events at both Hillel and Chabad on campus, hanging out with more Jewish people than I had ever known before, and even my friends from the previous year could see the change in me.
I had made the switch from being a Jewish American to an American Jew. And I wouldn’t have it any other way!