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Three years ago, I craved adventure. Yearning to escape my life as a poor graduate student, I went on a free trip to Israel, sponsored by Taglit-birthright israel. Although I took the journey for selfish reasons, I gained so much more substance in the process. I did not realize that going to Israel can be truly a homecoming for a Jew. I found myself falling in love with a rare and exotic beauty--the land of Israel. In this emotional state, I became very close friends with a fellow birthright journeyer. She was also from Chicago and had been a stranger to me before the trip.
Like two ends separated by a large distance on the same pole, my friend was secure in her world of Judaism, and I was unsure. Her religious background was Conservative leaning toward Orthodox Judaism; mine was Reform. Unlike me, she did not question a strict adherence to a singular belief system. In my feeble attempt to grasp this hidden part of my newfound self, I clung to someone who was much more solid in her Jewish identity.
When we returned to Chicago, I felt less connected to her. My spiritual feelings were intense in Israel, but like many other things, they dulled over time. Still, I made small changes, such as attending Friday night services and social gatherings of young Jewish people. Even though I had never based my decision to go out with someone on race or religion, I began to think that I wanted to marry Jewish. The more I went to the Jewish services and functions, however, the more I realized that I was just different from the people who attended them. I could not make myself be Jewish simply because I was Jewish. Joining one exclusive community led me to feel lost--from myself.
Although I dated some Jewish men after my return from Israel, I met someone very special while studying Linguistics in graduate school. He was not Jewish. At first, I tried to deny my feelings for him. Anyone who has ever fallen in love, however, knows how impossible this is. All the clichés are true. Love just happens. It is ironic that I met the love of my life at a time when I was trying to focus on my Jewish identity.
As my relationship grew in intensity and bloomed into love, my birthright friend became hostile. She criticized me for the choices that I was making. She also expressed her anger over my decisions to my family. Since my parents were initially very unhappy about my serious relationship with a non-Jewish person, this created a lot of tension. Most hurtful, she treated my partner unfairly and told him that I would never marry him.
With such hostility, she and I had trouble communicating or understanding one another. Since I always felt defensive when she made comments, I could never find the right words at the right time. The two of us could not agree on this one important decision--to choose to develop a serious relationship with a non-Jew.
To be honest, her comments about betraying the Jewish community still hurt me. I do not agree with her. I think a person can be Jewish and love another person who is not Jewish. Love can expand the boundaries of your ethnicity, culture, and religion without erasing them. Furthermore, love is a mitzvah, or good deed, and a blessing, not a curse or a burden. Love is powerful, sweet, and the meaning of life, whether the love is shared between people of the same ethnicity and/or religion or not.
Her comments also hurt because I feel guilty for not living up to others' expectations. In a way, I feel that I let others down by being true to myself. The famous words of Rabbi Hillel mirror my situation: "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?"
I do not know if there is a right and a wrong in the matter at all. I just know that it feels right to be with the person I chose. I made the right decision for me, but there will always be people, like my friend, who will think I am less of a Jew because of it. I, however, feel whole, complete, and actually more appreciative of being Jewish because my partner values my culture and wants to learn more about Judaism.
Ultimately, I found something that was missing in my life in Israel. It was not that I needed to be more Jewish but that I needed to be at peace with being Jewish. I do not know if friends happen for a reason, but I do know that I picked a destiny and that in a strange way, the friend I made in Israel was a part of it. I also know that we can choose whether to be angry or forgiving, whether to be truthful or dishonest, and I choose to share this story as a way of healing. As Rabbi Hillel would say, "If not now, when?"