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A 25 Year Old and a Bar Mitzvah

Meet One of Our Past Culinary Israel Participants

01.24.2017
James Lowenthal
James Lowenthal Birthright Israel

James Lowenthal is an Embedded Systems Engineer in Brooklyn, New York. James chose the Israel Expert's Culinary Israel trip because "they say to truly know a place you have to taste its food, and taste I did!" To see how Birthright Israel changed James from "Jew-ish" to "Jewish", continue reading! 

“Are you Jewish?,” the hopeful Chabad man asks me as I walk past the weekly Bar Mitzvah “tank” on the corner of William and Wall St on my way to work.  It’s considered a good deed in Chabad to help other Jews including those unaffiliated with the religion to perform a quick ritual.  I can never pass by these guys without them asking me this question.  I guess I “look” Jewish, or maybe they sense in my furtive sideways glances a sort of curiosity, something other than the typical New Yorker defense mechanisms to street solicitation.

“Are you Jewish?”  I’ve held this question for a long time.  I am one of many unaffiliated Jews living in the U.S.  I have practicing extended family, I’ve even met relatives who survived the Holocaust, and I enjoy celebrating some holidays with my relatives.  However, I was never raised to think of myself as Jewish, but rather Jew-ish, just a little bit Jewish.  Jewish enough to pepper in some Yiddish slang and Seinfeld references but not Jewish enough to attend Synagogue or to have had a Bar Mitzvah.

So when my equally un-Jewish roommate suggested we attend a Birthright trip together, I wondered if I was in fact Jewish enough to be taking advantage of a free trip to Israel.  We decided on the 7-Day Culinary trip from Israel Experts.  We had heard that this trip in particular would be diverse and inclusive, and also who doesn’t like food?  

When we met our group of 38 other travelers at the airport it became clear relatively quickly that we would be traveling with well balanced group, there were those who had been to Israel before with their Synagogue youth groups as teens or with their parents, and those like me who may have been making this trip as more of a whim, those who, like myself, were questioning if Birthright was in fact for them in the first place.

Flash forward to seven days later of the tastes, sights, sounds and people of Israel.  I am standing on stone steps of the Old City in Jerusalem outside of Al-Aqsa Mosque choking up as I recite my Bar Mitzvah speech in front of my new friends who are also balling.  What I had thought would be nothing more than a tourist’s novelty, my Bar Mitzvah in Jerusalem had become an intimate moment of personal affirmation.  I shared my family’s stories of why the hardships of the Holocaust and persecution for my grandparents’ interfaith marriage had caused us to turn away from Judaism, and how experiencing Israel and Jerusalem for myself had allowed me to reconnect.  I was able to realize how my family’s story of alienation and more complex relationship towards their Jewish identity was and is just as much a part of the Jewish experience as anyone else’s more “traditional” narrative.

It is hard for me to fill in the blanks that come between my skepticism at the beginning of the trip and what for me was its paramount climax.  I can only tell you to go see for yourself. You may or may not have a similar experience.  In fact, I do not want to overstate the impact my own Birthright trip had on me.  I still struggle with the question of whether or not I consider myself Jewish, I still have personal reasons why my relationship to Jewish-ness is complex, but maybe I just feel that little bit more open now.  Maybe I no longer see the Chabad who ask me to perform Tefillin as ghosts of my ancestors’ alien past but as fellow Brooklyn-ites who have been here since my own family used to live in the Orthodox community in the Bronx.  Friendly neighbors whom I can and have shared Sabbath dinner with since I have come back from Israel.  Americans, New Yorkers, like me who have a surprising amount in common despite our differences.  

Go on Birthright.  Keep an open mind.  Have fun.  You cannot go wrong, because there is no wrong way to experience this trip.  No two Birthright trips are the same.  Realize that if you are like me at the beginning of the trip it is entirely possible that at the end of it rather than feel more connected to Judaism and Israel you feel further removed.  You cannot have a genuine experience if the outcome is already ordained, and that is okay because what is most important is that whatever Birthright ends up being for you, it is a once in a lifetime opportunity that you simply should not miss out on.

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