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Last summer I returned to Israel for the second time on a North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) teen trip with 44 other teenagers from around America. Each time I have visited Israel, it has strengthened the strong connection that I feel to the people and especially to the land itself. While there, I feel with every Jew around the world. Yet I am troubled by the fact that in the official view of the state of Israel, I would not be considered Jewish.
The thing that troubles me most is that the very land that I feel such a connection with is the same state that would not recognize me as a Jew. This is because my mother, while a practicing Jew, has never officially converted. Jewish law in Israel, however, traces matrilineal descent in deciding who is Jewish.
I have always considered myself a Jew. Though my mother grew up Christian, she has embraced Judaism and is an active member of our synagogue. I, myself, attended Hebrew school for almost 10 years, and I can read and write Hebrew. I don't personally consider myself any less Jewish than anyone else, and I think that it is preposterous that anyone would try to tell me who I am as a Jew.
I didn't run into any particular difficulties regarding my intermarried background on my trip, in part because NFTY is a Reform organization. The only time that I felt somewhat uncomfortable was on the way to the airport to return to America, when Michael, one of our leaders, was talking about a kid who had told him that he would only date Jewish girls now. Michael congratulated the kid and said something to the effect that the best way to maintain the Jewish people is marry other Jews. In many ways I agree with this statement. It is much easier to pass on Judaism when both parents are Jewish--yet I don't believe that it is the only way. I am proof that intermarried families can raise Jewish children.
On my trip there were at least nine other kids who came from intermarried families. Their own personal experiences with Judaism and their parents ranged from having things relatively easy to having them be significantly more difficult. In a few cases the non-Jewish parent had decided to convert to Judaism; in others the parent had not converted. One girl in particular had had a very different and more difficult experience than I had. Her mother, who is a Jew, married her father, who was a Christian, but who now is a practicing Pagan. The Paganism her father practices incorporates many of the ideals of the Iroquois tribe to which he belongs. This girl, Rachel, told us that she has had many difficulties with her father regarding religion. In the past, she said, she had argued with him over the value of each religion. She did not feel that her father accepted her Judaism or truly valued it. Yet ironically, this adversity may, in fact, have strengthened her connection to Judaism. Her career goal is to become a Reform rabbi.
My visit to Israel was very meaningful for me. I feel a stronger connection to Judaism, but I think that my bond with the land of Israel is what has really increased. Israel is filled with a history so ancient that it is impossible not to look in awe and amazement upon much of it. Three things stand out prominently in my mind: my first view of the Western Wall; the sight of the two thousand-year old stones that the Romans threw off the Temple Mount when they destroyed the Second Temple; and emerging from the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum to see a sweeping view of Jerusalem. It is this mix of ancient and new that makes Israel such a special place. I know that I want to return there frequently in my life and I now have a desire to learn to speak Hebrew. Yet it saddens me that in this land that I feel such a kinship with, I am not accepted as a Jew.