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Offered the opportunity to staff a birthright israel trip, I initially had mixed feelings. Excited to better inform my understanding of and relationship to the Jewish nation-state, I was nervous (well, frankly, I was terrified) that the birthright program would offer only a pre-packaged, take-it-or-leave-it perspective on Israel--about which my social justice leanings cause me to hold a trove of complex feelings.
Also, with "interfaithness" an essential part of my identity (my Catholic mother converted to Judaism just before I was born), I often find myself skeptical of mainstream notions of Jewish identity. Marrying a Jewish partner, having Jewish babies, and paying congregation dues have never struck me as sufficient expressions of Jewish identity per se. I feared that birthright would be an extension of this general message, further alienating me and others with interfaith backgrounds, in interfaith relationships, or committed to social justice.
But Hillel's birthright program pleasantly surprised me. Personally, the trip provided me the mental room to experience Israel without a particular agenda being forced upon me. My unique identity provided a different lens through which I viewed the experience. Sitting on the deck of a restaurant overlooking Lake Kinneret, a place I identify with the idealistic kibbutzniks of early Zionism, I longed to share that moment with a Catholic friend who would look out and see the Sea of Galilee and the locus of much of Jesus' ministry. I was grateful to have that mental leeway even if I was left thirsting to witness other cultures' and religions' connection to the land.
I think that my desire to witness others' relation to Israel is fueled in part by my own lack of connection to this or any other place. Connection for me comes not through a place, but through people and ideas. I happened to be reading Thomas Friedman's Longitudes and Attitudes throughout the trip. A compilation of his columns before and after September 11, the book helped me to gain some perspective on my political outlook. As a liberal, I have always professed the mantra, "Better a bleeding heart than a frozen one." But a number of Friedman's columns (in addition to a conversation with an Israeli soldier, Irit, who traveled with us) helped me to realize occasions when I have been guilty of "knee-jerk" liberalism. I still prefer a bleeding heart to a frozen one, but now I can say that I reject a bleeding heart at the expense of a frozen mind. Friedman's writings and my conversation with Irit left me feeling better equipped to face nuances of the Israel/Palestine conflict that I would have previously disregarded because they were contrary to my perspective.
As staff, I was trained to give students that same room to explore that was provided to me, making no assumptions about their Jewish identities. Students were given the tools necessary to formulate their own understanding of their Jewish identity and relationship to Israel. It was my responsibility merely to provoke thought and facilitate conversations. I found this role to be deeply rewarding.
On Shabbat, I attended an alternative service led by a fellow staff person called "Why-Am-I-Not-at-a-Service Service." The first half of the service was spent exploring Jewish values through ethical dilemmas that college students often encounter. While this was interesting, the heart of the service revealed itself when one student called out toward the end, "Wait. I want to talk about why I'm not at a regular service." Grievance after grievance was aired against the Jewish community--grievances that had been significant stumbling blocks in my own Jewish journey. "I didn't get anything out of memorizing the alphabet in Hebrew school." "Services are rigid and don't mesh with my understanding of God."
Walking out of the room with a number of these students, I empathized through sharing a piece of myself. "One thing that I've deduced is that as much as Judaism has something to offer me, I have something to give back," I told them. "I believe that as a Jew, it is my primary responsibility to struggle with the religion and the community. While I may not reach the same conclusions as the majority of Jews, I believe that I am a good Jew precisely because I struggle and enrich the tradition with my own piece of the puzzle."
The subsequent expressions on students' faces made my trip. I could see the light bulbs of empowerment switched on. All of the deliberate struggling and pushing and frustration that I experienced in my Jewish journey, in part because of my interfaith background, have made me less susceptible to tripping along the way. More importantly, however, that experience has become a resource for me to help others confront their own stumbling blocks before they decide that this path, the Jewish path, is not worth the hassle.
Sarah Bassin is the Senior Jewish Campus Service Corps Fellow at Princeton University and has held fellowships in the past through both the American Jewish Committee and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. A 2004 graduate of Lafayette College with a BA in Religion and History, Sarah has been accepted into the HUC rabbinical program and plans to matriculate in the fall of 2006. She may be reached at email@example.com.