At Lion of Judah and Pomegranate Event
When Rachel Cohen Gerrol shared the story of her life-changing Taglit-Birthright Israel experience at the Lion of Judah/Pomegranate dinner on Monday, November 18, her energy and enthusiasm spread through the room. Here was a young woman who chose to make Judaism an important part of her life and created ways to make it accessible for herself and others who had little or no prior knowledge of how to be Jewish.
“I thought that Rachel Cohen Gerrol was one of the most dynamic, upbeat speakers we’ve ever had,” said Laura Koby after the event. “It was just a joy to hear a woman who is so excited about being Jewish.”
Shelley Trager Kusman opened her home to over 40 women for this event, and she and her mother, Jean Trager, hosted the dinner. Kusman and Robin Miller co-chaired the evening. The dinner was catered by Rye. At the start of the evening, Campaign Chair Doug Gordon said a few words of welcome.
Gerrol is the daughter of a mixed marriage. Her father, Pete, was Jewish, but not connected to the Jewish world. In fact, he found in college at Princeton that being Jewish was a liability, so he let it be known that he was just Pete, and later, as a professional, he was Dr. C. On her mother’s side, there were seven generations of Christian ministers.
With her parents’ attitudes and backgrounds, it is not surprising to learn that Gerrol grew up singing in the church choir and had no connection with the Jewish part of her heritage.
Following her father’s footsteps, she attended Princeton, and one night, when she was studying, she heard an ad for a free “Birthright 2000” trip to Israel over winter break for young adults with at least one Jewish grandparent. Figuring that this was a good opportunity for her first international trip, and it certainly was better than babysitting her younger siblings in New Jersey, she applied.
When Gerrol (then still Cohen) was called in for an interview for the program and was asked why she wanted to go to Israel, she said she really didn’t want to go to Israel, she just wanted to travel, and she asked what other trips Birthright offered.
In spite of that, she was accepted into the program. “In 1999, after Christmas dinner and vespers, I went to the airport,” Gerrol said, and it was there that she began to realize this trip was not what she had expected. “Everyone else was having significant experiences with their families” and exchanging endless goodbyes.
On the plane, the participants in this first ever Birthright Israel trip were seated alphabetically. She had never met another person with the surname Cohen before, so she was surprised to find six rows on the plane filled with people named Cohen.
Another surprise was awaiting her when they landed in Israel. Since this was “the first Birthright trip and 30,000 North American Jews were showing up in Israel for the first time,” they were greeted by a lot of fanfare. There were crowds to meet them, music and photographers. Even the founders of the Birthright program were there.
Gerrol was soon caught up in dancing with her fellow travelers – simple circle dances that she had never seen before. After dancing for about an hour, the founders came to the center of the circle and everybody started saying Hebrew words. “I started to feel like a fraud,” she said. “Maybe I shouldn’t be on that trip.”
Then silence fell over the group as everyone waited expectantly for Michael Steinhardt to speak. Finally, Judy Steinhardt, his wife, explained that for 10 years her husband had been raising the money to bring these young Jews to Israel, and now that it is a reality, he was speechless.
Gerrol now realized the importance of the trip she had been given and made a decision at that moment. She stepped forward and told her benefactor, “You’ve got me for 10 days, and I will live each day as a gift.”
Cohen was up early every day and asked every question she had. In fact, she asked so many questions that she came to be known as Rachel Cohen Question. She soaked in as much as she could. “I fell in love with living each day as a gift,” she added, “and the idea of making the most of each day.”
The trip was transformative and she became an advocate for Israel and proud to be a Jew. On the final day of the trip, the group visited the Kotel, the Western Wall. “I knew I loved Israel,” Gerrol said, “but I didn’t know a prayer and I didn’t know what Jews call God,” so she stood back in the plaza, hesitant to approach the Wall.
“As time passed,” she continued, “I started to realize there were thousands of women named Rachel Cohen who would have done anything to put a hand on the Wall.” So she approached to the Wall, put her hand on the cold stone and offered her own prayer.
Upon returning to the University of Pennsylvania, she went to the Hillel, which happened to be located alongside a number of fraternities and sororities, and told the people that she wanted to be a Jew and live there. Hillel did not provide housing or offer worship services although they could help with kosher meals.
Undaunted, she started calling the Birthright office in New York. Since she had participated in the first Birthright trip, no planning had been done for next steps. They sent her a recipe for hamantaschen and a CD of Jewish music and brought her to New York for a Shabbat service.
Finally, she got together with other Birthright alumni at Penn and organized a Shabbat dinner, complete with candles, challah and pepperoni pizza. Other alumni explained why the pizza didn’t work.
On her first Rosh Hashanah, she had been studying about Judaism and tried to go to services. She entered the shul and followed the protocol she would have followed in church. She picked up a prayer book, found her seat and put the book on the floor. Almost immediately, some girls came over, picked up the book, kissed it, started talking to her and wanted her to kiss the book. Unable to understand what happened, she fled.
She again turned to the Birthright office for advice. How could she be a good Jew without going to shul. She was told, care about Israel, the Jewish community, family and the repair of the world.
After graduation, she moved to Washington, DC, and became an advocate for Israel. She also worked at the U.N. on the Human Rights Commission speaking out for Israel, against anti-Semitism and for people who don’t have a voice. That took care of Israel and tikkun olam.
For family, she encouraged her younger brother, then a student at Penn, to take a Birthright Israel trip. He did, and when he returned, he joined the Storahtellers acting troup.
To fulfill the part about the Jewish community, Gerrol felt she needed to go back to shul, despite her fear. “So I called up the Federation because they were not listed as a particular denomination” and asked about services. The Federation offered happy hours, not services.
She pressed on – how about organizing a learners’ service for unaffiliated young Jews at a different congregation each month? They though she was naïve, and very few people would come, but they listened. This was something the Federation could fund.
“We organized the first event in 2007,” Gerrol said. “I stood outside of shul saying welcome to Shabbat.” Neither she nor the other participants knew what to do, but they were “craving inclusion.”
Gerrol met her husband at the third “Shabbat Hop,” and today, the program attracts 300 plus people every week. In addition, they started a successful “Mitzvah Hop” program, and this year they tried a “Sukkah Hop” with a party bus that took people from one sukkah to the next.
Gerrol later encouraged her sister to take a Birthright trip. Her younger sibling agreed to do so on the condition that Gerrol not talk with her about it ahead of time so it would be her own trip.
Gerrol flew to Israel and connected with her sister as a surprise on the last day of her Birthright trip. “My sister was wearing a Magen David necklace,” Gerrol said, and then they took a sisters tour together.
Two years ago, Gerrol said, her family, including her 99-year-old grandmother, had their first Passover Seder in 40 years.
“Birthright doesn’t just change lives,” she said. “It changes families and reignites communities. Every day is a gift.”
The purpose of programs like the one that evening, she explained, is to ensure a future for children like her own, “who wouldn’t have been Jewish without your gift.”
JCL Board Chair Karen Abrams was so moved, that when she was called on at the end of the program, she said there was nothing she could add. “We all want daughters-in-law like Rachel,” she said.
Everyone present had the opportunity to make their gifts to the 2014 Federation Campaign. Over $150,000 was raised during the evening.