While interfaith marriage and families have become increasingly more common, growing up with two different religious identities meant I never felt fully Jewish. That is, not until Birthright Israel.
My mother is Jewish, which according to religious tradition, made me Jewish, but having a whole side of my family adhere to another religion raised confusion. Would I be celebrating Hanukkah, Christmas or both each winter? What did celebrating those holidays really mean to me? What did being Jewish really mean to me?
As I went off to college, I began to feel like a part of me was missing, but I didn’t know what. College is a place where students reconcile identity, and I did not feel like my identity was whole as I began my life on campus.
That said, I did know that because I was Jewish, I could sign up for a free 10-day trip to Israel on Birthright Israel through the University of Delaware Hillel. I was feeling a wide range of emotions as I prepared myself for what I had heard former participants call a “life-changing experience.” I had no idea what to expect, but I knew that in order to experience a life-changing trip, I needed to give myself to the journey.
Little did I know, Birthright Israel would not only lead to me finding a faith identity that feels right, but it also has transformed me into a leader in my campus Hillel.
During the first couple of days in Israel, I had the time of my life with 45 new friends; we saw such amazing things that I never imagined I’d have the chance to witness. Admittedly, at first, it was just a vacation in my mind. But as the trip went on and as I started to connect with the people and Jewishness that surrounded me, something within me changed. How was it that I felt more comfortable with myself and my Jewish identity in a foreign country than I did back home?
So often, I had covered up my Jewish identity, or made qualifications about being “only half Jewish,” but at a market in Tzfat, I finally allowed myself to embrace my Jewish-ness. The market was filled with beautiful jewelry, and I saw a Star of David necklace that I kept returning to, thinking to myself, “but is that too Jewish?” With the encouragement of my friends, I eventually bought it for myself as an external symbol of the shift I had been feeling inside.
On the last day of the trip, right before we were about to head for the bus one last time, my whole group sat in a circle overlooking the Tel Aviv beaches. We reminisced on how the trip impacted us deeply and profoundly. Everyone shared what kind of spark this trip ignited inside of them, and what they would take back home with them. Sitting there, I realized that this trip and these people meant everything to me, and that this was the beginning of my personal Jewish journey.
Being Jewish is not my sole identity, but it is a part of me that I’ve recently found and fallen in love with. Since Birthright Israel, I have discovered a whole new side of Judaism that I never thought existed within me, and I’ve come to appreciate and revel in both the religion and the culture of this community. Birthright Israel gave me a running start to reunite with my Jewishness, and I feel more comfortable in my skin than I ever have before. Now I know what was missing at the beginning of my college career. Heading back to campus in the fall, I have a whole new family at Hillel, and as the Birthright Israel Recruitment Intern for this upcoming semester, I’ll have the opportunity to share my story and pay it forward.
Haven’t applied for a Birthright Israel trip yet? Go to freeisraeltrip.org.
Sarah Pozzi is a member of the Class of ’19 at the University of Delaware.