Elissa’s Bat Mitzvah: My experience of Birthright

In the Jewish tradition, the bar mitzvah ceremony represents the transition from childhood to adulthood. When one becomes a bar or bat mitzvah, he or she is ready to take on the responsibilities of full membership in the Jewish community. Although most Jews have their bar or bat mitzvahs at 13, I had mine when I was nearly 23. Granted, I never stood up in front of an entire congregation to recite the Torah, nor did I have a lavish Spice Girls-themed reception thrown in my honor, but I took an unforgettable trip to Israel through Birthright.

Traveling to Israel had been high on my wish list since I was 16. I lived in a predominately Jewish school district where popular summer activities included Jewish overnight camp and travel to Israel. I never took part in either of these activities. As pictures of smiling teenagers riding camels danced through my newsfeed on Facebook, I knew wanted to be a part of this rite of passage. I wanted to feel that direct connection to a country that had a lot of significance to my faith, so in college, I decided to pursue Birthright, a ten-day, all expenses paid trip through Israel.

After applying unsuccessfully during the fall of my junior year, and feeling too bogged down with life to apply for an entire year after that, I finally reapplied in May of my senior year. Although I was disappointed at the time that I had not gone sooner, looking back now, I believe that the timing of my trip could not have been more perfect. Scheduled to leave three days after my college graduation, this trip marked my first official adventure as an adult. And what better place to transition to adulthood than the holy land itself?

On my trip, I discovered one of the first lessons of adulthood — the discrepancy between expectation and reality. Don’t get me wrong, I was having a blast on my trip. I met a boisterous, friendly group of people with unique life experiences: Mitch the Ukranian who did spot on impersonations of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Christopher Walken; Yoav, our Israeli tour guide and aspiring jazz musician who was always off playing his guitar or resting on a desert rock while blocking out the world with his headphones; and Bryan, a professional animator for Nickelodeon. I did the token camel ride and Dead Sea float and enjoyed both immensely. I hiked across gorgeous desert canyons taking in the miles upon miles of dark yellow sand, simultaneously sparse and majestic. I played beach volleyball in Tel Aviv, Israel’s version of the city that never sleeps. I danced the horah (for all you goyim when have been to bar mitzvahs, that’s the dance where everyone runs around in a circle while the thirteen-year-old guest of honor is seated on a chair, hoisted in the air by the four strongest men in the family) in the desert with a group of Bedouins, an indigenous, nomadic tribal community who hosted us in their compound for an evening of “authentic cultural experience.”

In spite of all the wonderful people I met and the interesting sights I explored, I felt like something was missing. Even though this was a fun opportunity to explore a country I had never been to and learn about a culture so unique from my own, I was seeking a more spiritual dimension that I was just not finding. Friends who had gone on the trip before me had mentioned how the Birthright experience connected them more with their Jewish faith, and that was the core thing I was hoping to take away from my journey. This was supposed to be my trip to Mecca, my walk down the trail of Santiago de Compostela. When we learned about the history of the formation of the state of Israel at Tel Aviv’s Independence Hall and about Jewish mysticism in Tzfat, the birthplace of Kaballah, I felt like I was sitting in anthropology class learning about a foreign culture rather than one that comprises 50% of my own heritage.

When we met Sheldon Adelson (the billionaire responsible for funding our trip) along with thousands of fellow pilgrims in Tel Aviv, bright eyed college students kept telling him how this trip was so “moving” and “life-changing.” I felt inadequate, like I was doing birthright wrong. If I was not feeling this deep connection to the holy land, could I still legitimately claim the Jewish faith as my own? This question truly unsettled me because, even though I was raised in a home with two religions, celebrating both faiths but never fully observing either, Judaism had been my spiritual anchor for the past 15 or so years, and the idea of pulling up anchor to embark on unmoored and uncharted spiritual exploration left me confused. I came to the ultimate question of adulthood: If this wasn’t me, then who was I?

Then, one week into the trip, I arrived in Jerusalem, the holy city. When the scenery outside the bus window changed from sand to limestone, I knew that this portion of the trip would change the game. Even though I was sick, sleep-deprived, and cranky from never having had a moment of privacy (excepting shower and bathroom use), I felt the energy of fellow worshipers buzzing around me, and it invigorated me. (The fact that our trip organizers had opted for a four-star hotel rather than the cabins and tents we had stayed in previously probably put an extra spring in my step, as well.)

On our first day in Jerusalem, we explored Mt. Herzl, a gravesite for Israeli Defense Force soldiers who lost their lives in combat. Something about the white marble tombstones sleeping in the green hill, adorned with flowers of the most vibrant shades of magenta, royal purple, and blood red, and the straight and orderly cobblestone path leading us from grave to grave created an ambiance of simultaneous solemnity and serenity. Although I had never spent much time thinking about it before, I felt like I finally understood the definition of “rest in peace.” These soldiers faced intense training rituals in blistering heat (running up and down desert canyons is one of many such exercises, according to one of the soldiers we met on our trip). They witnessed blood, bombs, and brutality that terrifies many Americans from the safety of their air-conditioned living rooms thousands of miles and a wall of plasma away. Now these battle-weary men and women can quietly gaze upon the hills to which they gave their lives.

After a lunch of shawarma on Ben Yehuda street, the bustling, trendy, “young” sector of Jerusalem that complemented the shrine to ancient times that defined the rest of the city, we trekked up to Yad Voshem, Israel’s Holocaust museum. After seeing video clips of emaciated corpses bulldozed into a pit, as if they were mounds of dirt rather than human beings, and images of the children caught in the crossfires of this crime against humanity, we stepped out into the sunlight and stood together in a circle. Our group representing different nationalities, socioeconomic backgrounds, and levels of observance held hands as we sang “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, together commemorating a tragedy that affected each and every one of us and united us in our commitment to remembering it. Although the visits to these sacred memorial sites resonated with me emotionally and gave my trip some of the deeper shades of meaning for which I had searched throughout the past week, it was not until the next day that I truly reached Jew-vana.

I guess you could say that May 30, 2014 was the day of my bat mitzvah, for it was the day I touched the Western Wall (otherwise known as the kotel and the wailing wall). It is considered one of the most, if not the most, sacred landmark in Israel. The hushed lulls of worship, as well as the sheer number of worshipers gravitating toward the wall, impressed upon me just how holy a landmark it was. I looked down at the dress I was wearing. I had borrowed it from my roommate because none of the dresses I owned were conservative enough for the wall. “Make sure to cover your knees and shoulders,” our guides told us several times the previous night, addressing the group but looking at the women. Although the tropical green and the vibrant garden of flowers popping out at passers-by stood in stark contrast to the blues and grays the older Orthodox women wore, it served its purpose, and was still kosher.

I approached the wall with trepidation. This was a defining moment: If this experience didn’t connect me to either the land of Israel or the Jewish people, I did not know what would. I gazed at ivy-covered white stone, stepped closer to it, and closed my eyes. The minute I pressed my palm to the cool stone, I felt a quiver of electricity run down my spine. I thought of my father standing in my place in the summer of 1974, exactly 40 years before, touching this stone. Then I thought of his ancestors who had escaped violence in Russia and Poland because they were targeted for their beliefs. I shuddered, tears springing to my eyes as I realized how standing 100 years later in the spot most sacred to the Jewish faith, I was showing my devotion to the beliefs that led them to run with their lives nearly a century ago. Not even pogroms can wipe out the Spinners!

From that moment on, the rest of the trip seemed to click and everything fell into place. Again, maybe it was the change from sandy tent to four star hotel, but I felt more at home in the group and less like an imposter for joining the trip.

I felt the spiritual feelings of community when we went to a Hassidic (read: one of the strictest branches of Judaism) temple for a Shabbat service. A majority of the service was singing and dancing, and I was swept up in a wave of giddiness as I took the hands of a group of women with long skirts and hair covered by a cloth. If they minded that my dress came above my knees (we stumbled on the service by accident after we discovered that the more lenient temple we planned to visit was closed to visitors), they did not show it. Instead, they danced with me and helped me follow along with the service. Holding the hands of American and Israeli Jews as we laughed and worshiped together made me feel connected to a community of Jews beyond my family. It took more than a week, but I finally found my connection to the holy land and all it took was another brick in the wall.

Cover Photo:
James Emery, “Women’s Section of Wall (from ramp) 1871 (499752792).jpg,” May 7, 2007, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0, last modified September 4, 2014, accessed December 6, 2015, http://bit.ly/1NzaZu6. 


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