I was invited to write this piece to share with the community my experience in Israel this summer – what I learned, who I met, how I changed. And I will do my best to relay that here, but I know that – try as I might – I will never be able to truly convey how incredibly life-changing my summer experience as a 2015 Bronfman Fellow was.
The Fellowship was not only a wonderful way to meet Israel for the first time, but also was a learning experience like no other. I was exposed to opposing viewpoints on every topic from the Israeli narrative to gay rights in Israel to Rabbinic and Talmudic interpretation to the Iran Deal to the future of American Jewry.
Perhaps more than anything else, during the Fellowship I felt a part of the Jewish story. At Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem), I felt – for the first time – a deep connection to the Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Growing up, I always saw the Holocaust as history – it was something that had happened, it was something that was over. I never saw the Holocaust as part of a memory, the collective memory of the Jewish people.
However, walking into the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem, that changed. Seeing bookshelves that surround me almost completely, I was perplexed. Hearing that each of the books in those shelves contained not one name, but lists of names on each page, I was horrified. Hearing that not all six million of the names of victims have yet been recorded, I was disturbed. I felt numb, I felt sick, I felt wrong. But at the same time, I felt connected.
There were Fellows on the trip whose grandparents were resistance fighters or survivors of concentration camps. I am not as connected to the memory of the Holocaust as they inevitably are, but I am connected. In that Hall of Names, I felt inextricably bound to the past of the Jewish people. No longer was the Holocaust a moment in history – from that moment on, it has become a moment in memory, a memory that I share with the Jewish people.
Only a week later, at the Shalom Hartman Institute, I felt bound to the future, the survival, of the Jewish people, specifically American Jewry. During a session called “American Jews and Israel,” which was given by Yehuda Kurtzer, the president of the Hartman Institute in North America, I was blown away by the seemingly existential crisis of American Jewry about which I was so oblivious.
Over and over again, I heard referenced the horrifying Pew study (that I had no idea existed) and the dismal future for American Judaism (in reference to the number of American Jews who were raised Jewish but are either no longer Jewish or are planning to not raise their children Jewish).
Hearing about this issue for the first time in such a removed setting – the middle of Jerusalem, the capital city of the Jewish State – I was able to see it more objectively. Why are Jews assimilating? Does it matter if young people don’t go to services anymore? Is mainstream Judaism truly a bad thing? Is intermarriage truly a “silent Holocaust” (as it was referred to at some times)?
All of these questions completely occupied my thoughts quite unexpectedly after our session at the Hartman Institute. All of a sudden, I, a Jew who used to be unnerved by the lack of Jewish future, was stricken by the thought that American Jews might disappear. I did not only know about this problem – I cared. Just as I felt immediately connected to Jewish memory of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem, I felt immediately connected to the Jewish future at the Hartman Institute.
But it was not only the experiences that challenged and provoked me deep into thought this summer – it was the people. The ideological and religious diversity among the Fellows, the faculty, and the staff was incredibly important and interesting to me. Never before had I met a Modern Orthodox Jew. Or a feminist Modern Orthodox woman. Or a mizrachi (Middle Eastern) Jew. Or a Jew of Latin-American heritage.
Through classes and seminars, I was exposed to differing ideas. But through the people, those ideas were solidified, argued and expanded upon. Without the Fellows, I never would have heard extensive arguments both for and against the existence of an egalitarian mechitza (barrier between men and women) during prayer. I never would have heard extensive arguments both advocating for and against Israel’s actions in the West Bank and at the Western Wall.
And although we were all incredibly different – there were those of us who prayed three times a day and those of us who longed for bacon all five weeks – we managed to respect and rebuke each other. We agreed and disagreed, but we did it all while establishing and maintaining incredible bonds for which I will always be grateful.
It may seem that all of these changes are abstract, intangible, idealistic things – fake things that I can toss aside now that I am home. But perhaps the biggest change that occurred this summer is one that nobody else can see. During the summer, I struggled immensely with my sense of Jewish identity. It seemed as if so many other Fellows, especially Modern Orthodox ones, were so comfortable in their Jewish skin. Why couldn’t I feel the same way?
I was confronted about this issue on the last week of the Fellowship’s summer Seminar by one of the staff members, a Modern Orthodox Jew who wore a kippah every day, asked me why I was afraid to wear my Judaism proudly. Why, he asked, didn’t I wear Jewish symbols to school? Why did it make me feel uncomfortable?
I floundered for a while and he persisted. I was eventually left without a conclusion, and he reached one for me. It seemed, to him, that I was very fearful; fearful to express my Judaism; fearful, even, to be a Jew.
I have struggled since that conversation, but I think that, because of that conversation, I have come to terms with myself. I do not wear a kippah on my head or tzit-tzit on my waist. I am not visibly Jewish.
Instead, I express my Judaism inwardly. I wear, around my neck (and always under my shirt), a necklace with a chai (the Hebrew word for life). My parents gave it to me right before I left for the Fellowship and as I wore it in Israel, I felt at home with it.
Since I’ve been back, there have been awkward times when I’ve had to explain it to people. But to me, it is my Judaism. My Judaism is familial (it used to be my father’s necklace); my Judaism is personal; my Judaism is complicated.
Perhaps more than anything, that is what my time on the 2015 Bronfman Fellowship taught me. It taught me much more than I could have imagined last November when I started my application. It taught me much more than I could have imagined last April when I signed my commitment to attend after being selected as a Fellow. And it taught me much more than I can imagine right now.
I know that, through the two upcoming seminars, the Bronfman Fellowship will continue teaching me more than I can imagine. I returned to the United States on Wednesday, August